Thanks to some overactive content officers at Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon, deciding what show to watch next is likely to bring on a bout of option paralysis in the casual viewer and critic alike. That means it’s crucial to know what you’re getting into before you really commit to a series, and the details make all the difference to that decision: who’s in it? Who made it? Where can I watch it? And, perhaps most importantly, how long is it?
Time is precious, and there is just too much TV out there to dive in willy-nilly. To that end, it’s best to start this recommendation with one key fact: each episode of Homecoming, Amazon’s newest prestige show, is only half an hour long. As you’ll find out, it has a lot more going for it than that, but in this increasingly saturated TV climate, its length feels like a deal-breaker worth mentioning at the outset.
Beyond its brevity, Homecoming holds instant appeal: it’s a psychological thriller based on the hit podcast from Gimlet Media, is helmed by Mr. Robot writer-director Sam Esmail, stars Julia Roberts in her TV lead debut and features a stellar supporting cast that includes Sissy Spacek, Bobby Cannavale, Dermot Mulroney and Stephan James (soon to be seen in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk). Utterly compelling and very, very bingeable, Homecoming feels like the product of putting Alfred Hitchcock and Serpico in a blender: it’s a breathtaking, high-wire suspense story that invokes modern anxieties about justice and corruption, both on a personal and institutional level.
Homecoming manages to do all that with an accessible plot, too. Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, who wrote the original podcast, know the difference between complexity and convolution, and they’ve pulled off that coup in adapting the TV show. There are few differences between the two, bar the added visual components (a veritable treat – but more on that later): like the podcast, Esmail’s Homecoming follows Heidi Bergman (Roberts), a sympathetic mental health therapist working with returning soldiers like Walter Cruz (James) at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center. The facility is a government-backed “safe space” designed to help veterans re-integrate into civilian life, but it’s also privately operated, so there are less altruistic hands turning the wheel, too. Cut to 2022, and the appearance of a Department of Defense investigator (Shea Whigham) at the dingy diner Heidi is now working at opens up the floodgates of memory and mystery. Now living with her mother (Spacek), Heidi is unable to recall her time at Homecoming, nor can she answer the investigator’s questions about an anonymous complaint alleging Walter was falsely imprisoned by the staff there. Homecoming explores those mysteries across dual timelines with precise focus, immersing us in its strange world with hypnotic visuals and spectacular performances.
That’s all you need to know going in, but if you’re still unconvinced, here are the top three reasons you should make Homecoming the number one show on your watchlist:
The Hitchcockian writing and direction
The first thing to say about Homecoming is that it retains the pinpoint precision of the original podcast. Micah Bloomberg, Eli Horowitz and Blue Valentine co-writer Cami Delavigne (who worked on nine episodes) have streamlined the plot to within an inch of its life; nothing feels extraneous here, and by extension, it commands total viewer attention. In that scrupulous approach to detail, it feels a little like a Hitchcock film, a resemblance shared both superficially – Homecoming features frequent vertigo-inducing shots of staircases – and in a deeper thematic sense. The show is suffused with the same creeping sense of suspense at play in movies like Vertigo and Rear Window, and it’s easy to imagine Heidi being cut from the same cloth as Jeff and Scottie, too, since both of those films also feature heroes tainted by guilt, whether imagined or real – and she’s even something like Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, too, her amnesia being reminiscent of his total obliviousness in North by Northwest.
Homecoming shares just as much DNA with Esmail’s Mr Robot as it does with the Master of Suspense’s greatest works. Conspiracies are the driving force in all three, but there’s a more modern streak of anti-establishment distrust running through Homecoming that Mr Robot viewers will likely recognise. We’re instantly suspicious of Colin Belfast (Cannavale), whose fancy suits invoke the same anti-1% sentiment that keeps Mr Robot’s hacktivist heart pumping, and Elliot’s paranoia is also present in the amnesiac Heidi, who is stalked from within and without by government agents, corporate villains and a faintly nagging sense of complicity. It’s true that Homecoming is less concerned with the surreal as Mr Robot is — and is therefore much simpler to follow — but there’s something in its dual timeline approach and there essentially being two versions of Heidi (varying between 2018 and 2022) that harks back to Mr Robot’s dissociative Elliot.
That niggling sense of disorientation is also there in the show’s setting. Early on in the series, Homecoming “client” Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) points out that the soldiers have no reason to believe they’re in Florida, where the staff claim they are. There are palm trees, exotic birds and a balmy climate, yes, but that’s hardly conclusive evidence. Shrier is by far the most paranoid of the soldiers, and he’s more or less dismissed as such by Walter, but in the moment he voices his suspicions, an epiphany strikes. We suddenly realise that, like Walter, we have been too naïve in unquestioningly swallowing the official line. Whether or not the show confirms Shrier’s suspicions isn’t really important; what matters is that he has revealed our gullibility to us so that, for the rest of the series, we’re sceptics, too.
The stellar performances
Julia Roberts is perhaps Homecoming’s greatest, and most obvious, draw. A movie star of the kind that just doesn’t seem to be made anymore – and a newcomer to TV, rarer still – Roberts is the stuff of casting dreams. Happily, the meatiness of her part here matches the weight of her talent, which has seemed underserved in recent movie roles. Being that the show is split across two timelines, it requires a book-end style of performance, one that communicates the effect the intervening years have had on Heidi; what’s changed in her, versus what hasn’t. That amounts to more than double the work of your average role, but with typical brilliance, Roberts pulls off conveying both ends of the Heidi spectrum, retaining her name-making charm even in Heidi’s darker moments. When we meet her in 2018, on the first day of her job at Homecoming, she’s warm, enthusiastic and relatably nervous, rolling her eyes and flashing her familiar smile apologetically as she runs through the bureaucracy of inducting a new client into the program. Conversely, the Heidi of 2022 is a little wearier, a little curter, and demonstrably deflated in her new job waiting tables at a grubby seafood restaurant. The latter performance would be any actors’ make-or-break moment here, but unlike other stars of her era, Roberts has built her name on the kind of performances that bank entirely on an inherent lack of glamour — Erin Brockovich, August: Osage County – so there’s no question of her slotting right into Homecoming’s Florida noir setting.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise, then, that the show is nearly stolen by one of Roberts’ frequent scene partners, Stephan James. As recovering soldier Walter Cruz, James matches Roberts in instant likeability and immediate charm; like her, he has the kind of smile that could sell toothpaste to the toothless. He doesn’t have to do much to win our trust, either. In his therapy sessions, Walter is sincere to a fault, and he brings an unexpected serenity to the rest of his scenes: he’s often required to act as a calming force for his less-composed friends, like Shrier (Jeremy Allen White), who looks over his shoulder so much he’s in danger of getting a serious crick in his neck.
James is never so chilled that he’s frozen, though. As Walter, he has an animating effect on every scene he’s in, especially during those aforementioned counselling sessions. Watching Roberts and James bounce off each other in these moments is pure joy; the instant chemistry between them is palpable enough to make you feel like a voyeur watching them, but electric enough to make you forego any sense of guilt for wanting to stay in that office with them for the entirety of the show.
Beyond Roberts’ and James’ anchoring performance, Homecoming boasts an almost unnecessarily brilliant cast. Because it has the space to expand on the limited world of the podcast, the show gives us more time with less central characters – and with that, the opportunity to see colossal talents like Sissy Spacek, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hong Chau and Dermot Mulroney work their magic in small bursts. As Walter’s mother Gloria, Baptiste is particularly exceptional as the maternal foil to Homecoming’s nonsense — inspiring a sincere hope that this screen comeback will be a permanent one — while Chau proves her Downsizing performance was no fluke in a (perhaps deceivingly) peripheral role here.
That Chau’s performance makes such a mark is more impressive when you consider who she’s most often on screen with. As a corporate assistant to Heidi’s micro-managing off-site supervisor, she’s rarely seen without Bobby Cannavale, characteristically assertive as her jet-setting boss Colin Belfast. Cannavale’s performance here is a cutting caricature of Jekyll-and-Hyde corporate masculinity: ruthless and manipulative when it comes to his employees, but mealy-mouthed and cowed around his superiors. Cannavale is so brilliantly slimy that Homecoming doesn’t even need to bother with Geist’s unethical exploits to turn you against the corporate entity; as Geist’s human face on the show, Colin Belfast is more than enough.
Conversely, Shea Whigham is a magnet for our trust in Thomas Carrasco, the humble admin agent working for the DoD who provides the show with its catalyst when he investigates a years-old anonymous complaint about the Homecoming project in 2022. Evoking the great heroes of ‘70s conspiracy thrillers, he’s a Frank Serpico-esque figure: the antithesis to Colin, Thomas is full of integrity and working hard on the side of justice, but surrounded by corruption and sneered at by his superiors for the criminal assumption of believing he’s more than just a cog in the machine of government. Just like Heidi, he struggles with the drastic discrepancies between the job he thought he signed up for and the one his employers have in mind, but he stoically muddles through, spurred on by a work ethic that feels less motivated by actual ethics than it does by the devotion to professional duty prized by men of his generation. It’s a typically excellent performance from Whigham, one that stands out even in an enriched cast like Homecoming’s.
The throwback cinematography
Homecoming boasts some of the most characterful cinematography we’ve seen on the small screen in years. From aspect ratios and composition to angles and editing, this is a camera department that has thought of everything. Every visual element feels meticulously planned and precisely executed to a level even Wes Anderson would envy – although Homecoming doesn’t share his penchant for whimsy. Instead, the visuals here feel much more informed by the grainy paranoia of ‘70s-era thrillers like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor.
It’s no coincidence that the show’s influences came from the Watergate era, a period that is perhaps only rivalled in its distrust of authority by today’s. In the Geist Group, Homecoming’s overarching corporate villain, the show has found the perfect bogeyman for the modern era; one that neatly blends our paranoia about state surveillance, the military-industrial complex, and the excesses of capitalism into one clean and typically faceless corporate package. Just as Homecoming’s partiality for ’70s style sound stings is directly informed by those anxieties, so too is Tod Campbell’s cinematography: his camera swivels, zooms and tracks its subjects with voyeuristic relish, barely blinking as it drinks in Anastasia White’s geometrically designed sets with long, uninterrupted takes. Frequently, scenes are shot low or through a Dutch angle, as if the lens is personifying the disorientation and panic its subjects are feeling, while at other times, the camera is in the ceiling, the bird’s eye view mimicking the kind of perspective you’d expect from a surveillance camera.
Campbell’s cinematography implicates us more deeply in its voyeurism, too. Slow zooms into extreme close ups take us uncomfortably close to the show’s characters, as if we’re creeping into their personal space. Moments like these explicitly call back to the thrillers of the ‘70s, which brought audiences into the kind of proximity to their panicky characters that made it impossible not to soak up some of their anxiety. Here, its mostly Heidi’s discomfort we share in, and the show builds a kind of visual metaphor around that in its aspect ratio. As it flits between 2018 and 2022, we’re constantly switching between various levels of knowledge: paradoxically, in the earlier year, Heidi is more or less fully cognizant of Geist’s plan and her part in it, whereas she seems to start out the 2022 scenes totally clueless. In a deft analogy of the informational gulf between those years, 2018 is shot in lush, unlimited widescreen, while 2022 is confined by a boxy aspect ratio, the black gaps either side of the frame neatly symbolising Heidi’s considerable knowledge gaps.
In the context of this story – it’s no spoiler to say Homecoming features surreptitious drugging – there’s another visual flourish in Esmail’s series that is particularly disturbing. Most of the show is shot with a center focus, so the middle portions of the frame are stark and lucid, but often, the top and bottom edges of a shot are conspicuously blurred, as if someone dragged a paintbrush across still-wet paint. Whether that’s meant to be a metaphor about the tunnel vision of the plot or a visual trick designed to have audiences woozily doubting their own eyes — as if they too had somehow been sucked in to Geist’s covert medication program – it’s emblematic of Homecoming’s totally immersive “every inch” approach to design.
Homecoming is available in full on Amazon Prime now.