‘Homecoming’: Julia Roberts heads up knockout cast of complex Amazon series
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Even the low-key, deceptively mundane sequences in the Amazon series “Homecoming” are delivered with creativity and cool and intrigue.
Case in point: an episode-opening moment when Julia Roberts’ Heidi, who normally pays little attention to her appearance, tentatively enters a health and beauty store with the intention of sprucing herself up for a very specific purpose.
Cut to the new-look Heidi arriving at her destination, looking equal parts self-conscious and self-pleased.
And the whole sequence is set to the haunting, titillating strains of Pino Donaggio’s “Telescope,” from Brian DePalma’s lurid 1984 thriller “Body Double.”
Weird! And fantastic!
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Sam Esmail, the greatly gifted creative force behind “Mr. Robot,” developed “Homecoming,” served as executive producer — and best of all, directed all 10 episodes of this complex, tantalizing, time-hopping, immensely entertaining series. (Even before Friday’s series premiere, “Homecoming” has been renewed for a second season.)
Get this: “Homecoming” is actually based on a popular podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, which employed mid-20th–century radio serial techniques in a new and original manner to tell a decidedly modern story set in the present day — and in the near future.
The transition from the intimate, eavesdropping-style podcast to the visually ambitious, stunningly original adaptation is like listening to a concert recording with your eyes closed — and then opening your eyes and finding yourself in the front row of an outdoor stadium, watching the band playing the song live.
“Homecoming” tells its winding, sometimes baffling tale via parallel timelines, in 2018 and four years later.
In the 2018 scenes, Heidi (Roberts doing some of the finest work of her career) is a therapist at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a privately owned facility designed to help soldiers returning home from combat duty. Through counseling, role-playing and other techniques (including a revolutionary if not entirely vetted form of medication), it will be only a matter of weeks before these veterans have not only faced their PTSD, they’ve conquered it, and they’ll be ready to return to society as productive, well-adjusted civilians.
Stephan James, a star in the making, has a mesmerizing presence as Walter Cruz, a returning soldier who seems relatively well-adjusted and truly enjoys his sessions with Heidi, with both of them believing Walter is making real progress. At times, Walter turns the tables on Heidi, playfully quizzing her about HER experiences, and drawing up a fantasy trip where the two of them will get out of this place and drive west and just keep on driving until they find just the right spot to escape from the world.
As for that place: the facility is set in the middle of Nowhere, Florida, and it looks more like a prison than a “Transitional Support Center.” There’s a fishbowl element to the design, as if the soldiers are never out from under the watchful eye of … somebody or something.
Bobby Cannavale is a fireball of agitated energy as Heidi’s supervisor Colin Belfast, who for a long time appears only in phone conversations with Heidi. (Colin is always preoccupied with something in front of him even as berates and cajoles and barks at Heidi. In the split-screen shots, an often confused Heidi hangs on Colin’s every word, while Colin often has his back to her, so to speak, barely listening to anything she has to say.)
When we flash forward four years, Heidi is living with her mother (the great Sissy Spacek) and working as a waitress at a dive diner on the waterfront. When a Dept. of Defense auditor (Shea Whigham) shows up one day with questions about Heidi’s time at the facility, she’s reluctant to offer any details. She really can’t remember much at all.
It’s as if she’s wiped the entire experience from her mind.
The 2018 sequences are shot in a full-frame, 16:9 aspect ratio, while the 2022 scenes have a boxier, more intense look. And while “Homecoming” is set in the present and that near future, it often has the look and sound of a Hitchcock thriller from the 1950s or 1960s. (Certain camera moves are straight out of the Hitchcock and then DePalma playbook.)
Some two-character exchanges feature ping-ponging close-ups, which could be a problem for actors of limited range. But with Roberts, Cannavale, James, Spacek and Whigham handling the heavy lifting, that’s never an issue.
Each episode of “Homecoming” is about a half-hour, leaving no room for placeholder sequences or needlessly distracting subplots. Every scene, every character, every development is a key component of a jigsaw puzzle that admittedly takes quite some time to develop into something we can truly see for what it is.
But even when that final piece of puzzle locks in, we’re still left with so many questions and potentially intriguing developments, we already can’t wait for Season Two.
Premieres Friday on Amazon Video