When the creator of Mr. Robot adapts a popular serial fiction podcast into a TV series for Amazon Prime streaming, with a couple of Oscar winners in the cast and seemingly free reign to be as weird and experimental as he wants, the result is bound to be a little off-kilter. The real mystery is whether Homecoming actually adds up to anything in the end.
Julia Roberts stars as Heidi Bergman, the managing director of a live-in treatment facility designed to help American soldiers returning from duty in the Middle East re-acclimate to civilian life by way of therapy and occupational workshops. That sounds like a worthy, even noble cause for someone to devote her life to, and Heidi may even believe she’s genuinely helping her patients, though she knows there’s more going on behind the scenes than anyone has disclosed. Beyond the stated purpose of the center is a secret agenda that viewers are only slowly allowed to understand.
The Homecoming operation is run not by the American military, but by a private contractor firm called the Geist Group. In between her therapy sessions with a soldier named Walter Cruz (Stephan James from Selma and Race), Heidi is subjected to repeated abusive phone calls from her boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), who demands results from the experiment they’re running and has little concern for the welfare of any of the soldiers. The exact nature of that experiment is withheld until late in the season.
The show’s narrative takes place in two timelines. Interspersed within the primary storyline at the Homecoming center are flash-forwards to about a year later, after Heidi has either left her job or been forced out. She’s now living with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and works as a waitress in a tourist trap seafood restaurant, which seems like a considerable career downgrade. When she’s approached by a low-level Department of Defense caseworker (Shea Whigham) attempting to follow up on an anonymous complaint about Homecoming, Heidi is instinctively evasive and even angry with his questions. She claims that she doesn’t remember anything about her time at the center. At first, we assume that this is a dismissive brush-off, but later it seems that she really can’t recall details of her life from just a year earlier. As she begins to realize this, her missing memories greatly trouble her.
All ten episodes of the season were directed by Sam Esmail, who pulls a lot of the same sort of arty tricks that have worked for him on Mr. Robot. In the most showy stylistic device, scenes in the Homecoming storyline are shot in traditional 16:9 widescreen while the flash-forwards are photographed in Portrait layout, consisting of a thin strip of image pillarboxed in the center of the screen. This is alienating, even annoying at times. By the end of the season, we see that there’s a purpose behind each form of composition that eventually interacts with the events of the plot, but I’m not sure whether that makes it feel more or less gimmicky. The narrative also consists of puzzles within puzzles. Characters on screen speak cryptically, and important pieces of information are held back until they can be revealed at dramatic moments.
Season Verdict / Grade: B
The obvious artifice of this series can get to be frustrating, when it feels less like a mystery and more like the writers manipulating the audience to make themselves look clever. The big plot twist revelations turn out to be surprisingly logical, and as such aren’t exactly shocking. A love story that develops between Heidi and Cruz feels tacked-on and unnecessary. Ultimately, I question whether the entire story really has as much depth, either psychological or thematic, as Mr. Robot at its best, or if it’s all just a con game.
On the other hand, the performances are all terrific. Nobody plays a slimeball quite like Bobby Cannavale. Shea Whigham has a very understated role as the browbeaten government functionary, but really digs into it and proves to be the most compelling character.
The short half-hour episode length (rare for a drama series) helps the show to go down easily and gives it a high bingeability factor. Throughout, I found Homecoming interesting enough to keep watching, even if I wasn’t always fully captivated by it.
Amazon has greenlit a second season. Given the way the storyline ends, I’m not sure what room there is to continue, unless this turns out to be an anthology with all new characters and settings every season. Then again, the original podcast (which starred Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, and Oscar Isaac) ran for two seasons, so maybe the TV version will follow that template.