If the first three seasons of USA’s Mr. Robot are any indication, Sam Esmail is drawn to stories filled with characters who are ill at ease with the world around them. Sometimes the stories themselves seem ill at ease with the world at large, and, over time, that feeling creates an atmosphere of paranoia, one that never quite settles but rather expands into something ominous yet inscrutable. There’s something wrong with the worlds Esmail creates, but that sense of foreboding always seems to defy precise categorization, making it, unsurprisingly, all the more menacing. That’s certainly the case with his new Amazon series Homecoming, a show that also happens to have Julia Roberts, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, taking a lead role.
Homecoming is something relatively new to television or streaming services. It’s a scripted drama adapted from a podcast of the same name. Homecoming certainly isn’t the first of its kind - Amazon has the anthology Lore already in its second season - but it might be the first to have this level of talent working to make it into a viable television show. Created by Eli Horowitz and Micha Bloomberg, the series tells a story of Heidi Bergman (Roberts), a caseworker at a homecoming facility for military veterans, helping them transition back into civilian life. The facility seems to have the vets' best interest at heart, but things very quickly reveal themselves as something else entirely. There’s a pervasive sense that something untoward is going on behind the scenes, care of Bobby Cannavale’s slippery corporate stooge, Colin Belfast. That feeling of discontent is exacerbated by a dual storyline, putting Heidi’s time at Homecoming in the past, while in her present, she’s a waitress at a waterfront restaurant in Florida, with hardly any recollection of her time at the facility or her interactions with the “clients.”
One of those clients — servicemen preparing to reenter civilian life — is Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a seemingly normally functioning military man who’s eager to participate in the program, until a friend, Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) begins to question the intentions of the program and those participating in it. Like a contagion, Shrier’s paranoia spreads, generating a slow-burn mystery that may or may not be what anyone thinks it is.
In addition to the way it looks — Homecoming captures what might be regarded as Esmail’s signature visual style of slow, fluid camera movements, long takes, lots of things happening in the background, and a deliberate color palette — the series makes use of an unconventional aspect ration to denote the present-day narrative, which is partly headed up by Shea Whigham’s DOD investigator Thomas Carrasco. It looks almost as though Esmail shot it on an iPhone in portrait mode, and the exact effect is strangely unsettling, though again the reasons why are difficult to put a finger on. There is, however, a palpable sense of claustrophobia; Esmail deliberately obscures the viewers’ field of vision, and that visual limitation enhances the paranoia effectively. The series also borrows the style of ’70s paranoid thrillers, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, or Brian De Palma’s early ‘80s thriller, Blow Out, which gives it a look like nothing else on television.
Similarly, Homecoming’s mistrust of institutions, both governmental and corporate, feels cut from the same cloth as Mr. Robot. The difference here being that the series’ ostensible protagonist, Heidi, is also an unwitting victim in the mysterious schemes of the Homecoming program run by a faceless conglomerate called Geist, that may or may not have had some nefarious plans for the returning servicemen, but is most definitely involved in a massive cover-up of whatever went down at the facility that left Walter Cruz in the wind and Heidi with almost no memory of here time there at all.
The effect is a persuasively unsettling drama that weaves a number of character threads in and out of the main storyline as a way of coloring the inner lives of Heidi, Walter, Colin, and Thomas, but also as a way to keep the audience guessing as to the answers to the mystery and, curiously, to the nature of mystery itself. Playing things that close to the vest isn’t exactly uncharacteristic for Esmail, and here it helps him establish the story’s tone early on. But that tone enjoys a variance that keeps the ever-building paranoia from becoming stifling. Characters like Dermot Mulroney’s Keebler middle-manager-cum-personal-trainer, Anthony, and even Cannavale’s Colin, help ease the tension with much-needed moments of levity, even if it’s just to poke fun at themselves.
The story is different for Roberts, though, as she’s tasked with playing the same character two ways. One moment, Heidi is a confident, committed caseworker, and the next, she’s a seemingly secretive waitress who lives with her mother (played by Sissy Spacek), and slowly comes to understand her role in all of this is not at all what she thought it was. Roberts plays both parts with subtle variations, though those variations become more apparent the more she learns and the more she realizes she doesn’t know. It’s an understated performance that fits the tone of the series with its emphasis on slow-burn suspicion.
A potentially overlooked element to Homecoming’s success may be its format. 10 half-hour (ish) installments make the series as bingeable as the podcast, and will ultimately work in the show’s favor, as it competes with a multitude of fall programs, on fellow streaming platforms and elsewhere. Homecoming is a rare series that doesn’t play its hand too soon, nor does it test the audience’s patience with overlong installments that cause the season to sag in the middle. In the end, Homecoming is an effective and entertaining series that’s equal parts ‘70s paranoid thriller and modern-day mystery.
Homecoming season 1 will stream on Amazon Prime Video starting Friday, November 2.