From the very start of Homecoming, you know something isn’t quite right. The pieces are all there for a conspiracy: a shadowy corporate-backed contractor, a Department of Defense investigation, and an insistent score that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a 1940s radio play. That’s because, essentially, we are. Homecoming is Amazon’s adaptation of Gimlet media’s podcast of the same name, a throwback to radio dramas that have seen a growing success in recent years. In adapting the auditory story to TV, though, it kept its same writers (Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg) but gained a director — Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail.
Whatever qualms one may have with the way USA’s Mr. Robot has continued to develop since its stellar first season, one thing that is undeniable is how much style Esmail brings to the production. He has pushed the boundaries of what we expect from modern TV drama, and elevated it with long-takes and edits that are more typically reserved for cinema. While sometimes it can felt like style over substance, stand-out episodes like “Runtime Error” did an entire episode in one take. It was enthralling. So matching up Esmail’s style with the solid narrative of Homecoming seems like it would be a perfect fit. How would Esmail’s visuals augment this already engrossing story?
That answer doesn’t really come into play until about the eighth episode of Homecoming’s eventual ten, unfortunately. Until then, the series feels very much like listening to a podcast, one that is driven by its dialogue and relying heavily on a classic thriller score. Which is shame, because the series should be thrilling. It follows the story of a caseworker, Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) in two timelines: one, when she is in the middle of her work at the Homecoming facility, which treats soldiers coming back from war and helps integrate them back into society, and a second timeline (given a vertical aspect ratio) when she’s later working as a diner waitress. It’s a strange change of careers in a fairly short timespan, which is one of the things that DOD bureaucrat Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) notes while investigating a complaint against Homecoming that Heidi might be involved with.
As the series unravels, it introduces a handful of other key characters, like Heidi’s jerky supervisor Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), and Walter Cruz (Stephen James), a charismatic young veteran with whom she forms a special connection. Soon it becomes clear to Heidi that these soldiers — many of whom are plagued by PTSD — are not being conditioned to return to civilian life, which they crave, but are part of a calculated experiment. And at that point, she becomes increasingly reluctant to be involved. As for how Heidi ended up as a waitress without much memory of her former employment, and the circumstances of her leaving Homecoming at the same time as the sweet Walter (who was discharged for violent misconduct), the series takes it time in these reveals. And yet, there’s never anything more than a low-grade interest in getting there.
Though the episodes only run a half-hour each, Homecoming moves at a glacial pace. It finds its groove about four episodes in, and then loses it again. It’s clear pretty early on what the circumstances are at the facility itself, but the show spends a lot of time on long, slow conversations between its core characters, and never expands its world. We only ever see Heidi’s sessions with Walter, and never anyone else at Homecoming. We have no idea what her relationships are like with the other soldiers, or how they are adapting (or not adapting) to the program, save for a paranoid veteran whose story is never fully concluded.
Despite the star-studded cast (much like the podcast), all of whom deliver, there are several dropped plotlines that aren’t particularly interesting when they’re happening nor surprisingly pivotal later on (like with Heidi’s ignored and somewhat reviled boyfriend Anthony, played by Dermont Mulroney). It feels odd for a series that is so short, and yet, includes so much filler, especially when there are plenty of other interesting threads that could be explored. Esmail adds a few cool tracking shots here and there, including in the aforementioned eighth episode, where there are long scenes that rely on visuals only, and culminate with parallel experiences where Thomas sees what Heidi thinks she should be remembering. Beyond that, it’s not an easy thing to dramatize calm, lengthy conversations between characters, although HBO’s series In Treatment made it work. However, that was meant to be a showcase of rotating actors, one where each session was a performance. In Homecoming, though, things are far less contentious — James and Roberts are exceptionally charming and exceptionally boring.
Despite some interesting flourishes along the way, the conclusion of Homecoming isn’t nearly as satisfying as it should be (and clearly wants to be), but that is probably because Season 2 is coming sometime next year. And yet, like the rest of Homecoming, there’s no real rush to get there.
Homecoming premieres Friday, November 2nd on Amazon Prime.