Homecoming, Amazon Prime Video’s delirious and eerie psychological thriller series, is an entity very much of its era: a web-based TV series led by a movie star, adapted from a podcast.
It’s also a fine example of the remarkable leaps TV has made since the turn of the century thanks to the increasing presence of hugely talented individuals like Julia Roberts, who stars here as Heidi – a social worker embroiled in a shady programme which purports to aid returning military veterans with re-immersion into society – and Sam Esmail, the showrunner of the wildly inventive drama Mr Robot (also on Amazon Prime Video), who directs all 10 episodes.
Like Netflix’s Maniac, which similarly brought together top tier actors (Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Sally Field) with a young and visionary TV director (True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga – now tapped for the next Bond film), Homecoming eschews our expectations from the get-go with its big-budget art film aesthetic, and employs oppressive filmmaking techniques that compete for our attention. Roberts is clearly the selling point, and she shines when she needs to – but Homecoming is Esmail’s baby, and for the most part, his measured approach to laying out the mystery as crafted by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who adapted their podcast for the small screen, demands a surprisingly low-key performance.
The series takes place across two timelines, 2018 and 2022. In the former, Roberts’ Heidi is working in an undisclosed, remote part of Florida at Homecoming, a privately run retreat with questionable intentions.
She functions predominantly as a psychotherapist, holding individual sessions with soldiers, attempting to get them to open up about any traumas they may have undergone on their tour. Phone calls with her boss, Colin (played with appropriate sleaze by Bobby Cannavale), hint that the programme may not have the soldiers’ best intentions in mind, but it’s unclear at first what this could mean. In the second timeline (delineated from the former on screen by a shift to a more narrow, claustrophobic display ratio), Department of Defence auditor Thomas Carrasco (played by Boardwalk Empire’s Shea Whigham) is investigating an old complaint about the now-defunct programme. He tracks down Heidi, who is inexplicably now working in a greasy diner in a small town. She defensively dismisses his questions about the programme, saying she doesn’t really remember her time there.
We then flit between these two timelines over the course of 10 episodes, as the Homecoming mystery slowly unravels. In both, Heidi is bizarrely docile, as if medicated, or having just woken up from a long, disorientating nap. She’s a predominantly passive character, and glimpses of the kind of feisty, strong-willed women that Roberts has played in the past are few and far between. But when they come, they are all-the-more satisfying, like the scene in which she hisses at a partner to get his”f***ing forks” out of her apartment as she delivers a long overdue break-up.
Julia Roberts and Stephan James in Homecoming
Heidi is most animated when she interacts with Walter, a charming young soldier (Stephan James, the star of Barry Jenkins’ upcoming Moonlight follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk) – and their relationship becomes the crux of the A story. He is traumatised from his experiences of war, but has hardened himself to hide it. She thinks she can help him, but her superiors have other ideas…
The series is successful in large part thanks to innovations by Horowitz, Bloomberg and Esmail behind the camera. Take, for example, the unusual dynamic between the two characters at the heart of the story. Heidi, the passenger, is fleshed out far more than investigator Carrasco, who, in a typical thriller of this kind, would be the lead. We have no insight into his personal life, and know little about him beyond the fact that he is becoming increasingly, and inexplicably, consumed by a case which seemed like a non-starter at the get-go.
It’s an interesting and unsettling re-structuring of the detective drama, and it adds to the visual and aural onslaught from Esmail and co (he retains his team from Mr Robot), who are pulling the strings to engage the viewer even when the story lulls. There’s a voyeuristic quality to the camera-work, often stalking Heidi from afar, in a manner reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s deeply unsettling paranoia parable Caché, and aural features retained from the podcast – which starred Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer – like the buzz of the telephone line when Heidi and Colin speak, and the bubbling of a fish tank in Heidi’s office – add further texture.
And then, there’s the music: intense, Hitchcockian strings that bring a cinematic grandeur and jar with the relatively austere visuals.
And, perhaps most jarringly of all, the episodes are a very binge-able 30 minutes, almost unheard of for a drama of this magnitude. It keeps things humming along at a nice pace.
We’ve come to expect certain things from these big-budget, movie star-led miniseries (mostly thanks to HBO’s Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies and True Detective): sleek visuals, big-budget soundtracks and clean narrative storytelling. Homecoming and its unlikely star go quite a way to subvert these expectations, crafting an intriguing mystery in the process.