I imagine that it took the perfect script to lure Julia Roberts — one of the world’s biggest damn stars, in spite of her spotty box-office record in recent years — away from movies to make a television show for Amazon. Julia Roberts won’t do a dog-and-pony show for anyone except Tom Hanks (sorry Larry Crowne), but I suspect it didn’t take much convincing after she read the script from Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, adapted from their own Gimlet Media podcast. As mystery series go, Homecoming is perfectly constructed. It’s Hitchcock for the small-screen, a tight, efficiently told story that doesn’t just set up a compelling mystery, it pays it off without resorting to narrative cheats. You know how critics often say it’s about the journey as much as it is the destination? With Homecoming, Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail provides us with a destination that’s as great as the journey.
Julia Roberts stars as Heidi Bergman, a counselor in a program for soldiers suffering from PTSD transitioning from the war to civilian life. It’s unclear initially exactly what this program is designed to do, although based on Heidi’s conversations with her arrogant shithead of a boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), there’s clearly something sinister at play. Heidi doesn’t always seem ready to go along with the demands of Colin, either, especially where it concerns Walter Cruz (played spectacularly by Stephan James), a charming soldier who seems to have a good head on his shoulders in spite of the traumas he suffered during the war. Meanwhile, only one transitioning soldier (Jeremy Allen White) suspects something is amiss with the program, and he’s quickly dismissed as a crank.
Meanwhile, in a different timeline a couple of years into the future, Heidi is living at home with her mother and working as a waitress at an oceanside diner. She’s confronted by an FBI investigator from the Department of Veteran affairs (Shea Whigham) who wants to ask Heidi some questions about the Homecoming program. She pleads ignorance, and the thing is, she legitimately doesn’t seem to know what’s going on or why an FBI investigator is asking her questions.
The action over the course of the 10 episodes takes place in those two timelines: in one, details about the program are slowly doled out, and in the other, Whigham’s FBI investigator endeavors to figure out what happened as the viewer learns right along with him.
That’s all I’m going to say about the storyline because I don’t want to spoil anything — the revelations are best experienced on your own. It is, however, very good, and Esmail’s influences are clear: Hitchcock, a little bit of Steven Soderbergh, a dose of Christopher Nolan, and a dash of David Fincher. The cast is stellar, too. Roberts is more Brockovich than Pretty Woman, while Stephan James (Selma, If Beale Street Could Talk) is spectacular, and on the verge of a break-out (and well positioned now for a Marvel role). Whigham is his usually reliable self, and the glue that holds this all together.
What’s so refreshing about Homecoming besides its brisk running time (half-hour episodes! of a drama!) is how straightforward it is. Esmail never tries to trick the viewer; he’s not trying to hide the ball or pull a fast one over on us. It unfolds in increments, so when the picture all comes into view, it does so in perfect clarity.
A second season of the series has already been confirmed (and Gimlet Media is already working on another season of the podcast). I do wonder, however, whether Homecoming will ultimately take the form of an anthology series — season one is so tightly constructed, and written in such a way that most (or all) of the answers are provided that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for another installment with the same set of characters. That said, I would love to see a second season that continues following the “complaint” up the ladder while also contending with the effects the program has had on Jeremy Allen White’s character (and for fans of Shameless, I appreciate that Esmail hired a Shameless co-star of his girlfriend, Emmy Rossum, and that Julia Roberts is as close to an older Emmy Rossum as you can get).
Header Image Source: Amazon