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Wednesday
Nov142018

Homecoming: Season 1 

By Spencer Coile 

With the recent wave of bona fide movie stars making their way to television, it should come as no surprise that someone as prolific as Julia Roberts would do the same. Her extensive career has proven time and again that she can master multiple genres, complex characters, and still be the best part of any ensemble (looking at you, August: Osage County).

That is what makes her performance in Homecoming, the latest Amazon Prime series from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, all the more exciting. Based on the popular podcast that came before it, Roberts takes on the role of Heidi Bergman, previously played by Catherine Keener. Working for the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, Heidi’s job is to assimilate soldiers back into civilian life. However, unease and intrigue begins to set in, as Heidi soon realizes that her role is more sinister than she had initially thought...

Through just 10 episodes (each with a 24-37 minute running time), Homecoming is a perfect storm of arresting imagery, mystery, and a performance from Julia Roberts we never knew we needed.  

The series jumps between years: one that follows Heidi as she consults with recently returned veterans and one that takes place several years into the future where she is a disgruntled waitress who has no recollection of her former job. Ingeniously, the only clue given to this gap in time comes in the form of the aspect ratio. While working at Homecoming, the colors are bright and vibrant with a widescreen frame. Flashing forward into the future, the colors are drab and the screen is set at 4:3 ratios. What may feel like jarring storytelling soon becomes the clue into Heidi’s frame of reference, the key that will help her understand the mystery of her past. 

Enmeshed in the story are other notable players. There is Walter Cruz (Stephan James), the primary enrollee at Homecoming who forges a special bond with Heidi. Their conversations in counseling function as the jumping off point for the rest of the episode. There is also Heidi’s sleazy boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale) who hardly interacts with Heidi in person, but berates her and manipulates her over the phone. 

And of course there is Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham in the series' most delightfully understated performance), the paper pusher Department of Defense employee who starts to connect the dots between Heidi’s past and present. Peppered throughout the season are actresses Hong Chau, Sissy Spacek, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste who help to put the puzzle pieces together. 

Rooted in its source material, Esmail has found a way to incorporate specific qualities from the podcast and translate it distinctively for the screen. For instance, the sound design is subtle, but incredibly intricate. From the phone calls Heidi shares with Colin, where it sounds like an actual conversation one has over the phone, to the ticking of a clock, to Carrasco clicking his highlighter in agitation, all help to convey suspense and appeal to those who were fans of the podcast. 

Yet while the filmmaking qualities are contemporary in many ways, Homecoming feels like a series embedded in the past. Throughout each of its episodes it plays homage to the 70’s and 80’s – it never once uses its own original score, but instead pulls from films such as All the President’s Men, Carrie, and Klute. This is by no means an accident;  it is paying tribute to paranoia thrillers from decades past. Or consider the tracking shots, the elaborate and beautifully staged set pieces, the camera angles that appear to look down on Heidi. Theyare expertly crafted techniques that work to merge the past and present. 

At the center of everything, though, is Roberts herself. Having played boisterous and outspoken characters throughout her career, it's quite refreshing to watch her pull back in her portrayal of Heidi. This is an especially restrained and modulated performance, unlike anything Roberts has played in the past. While at first she seems to fade into the background, Heidi soon becomes the show’s beating heart, driving the story forward. 

In short, Homecoming is a highly particular blessing of a show. It tells its story succinctly while making the mystery compelling enough to carry across 10 episodes. While it was already renewed for a second season, the final scene brings Heidi’s story full circle in a way that will briefly take your breath away. It’s dizzying and spellbinding, and one of the great new series of 2018. 

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Reader Comments (10)

I was afraid when I started watching the series because my expectations were too high, but those expectations were more than surpassed. It is so well written, directed and acted. The final scene with Julia Roberts is heartbreaking and the soundtrack is a pure pleasure (the music from Klute! the music from The Conversation!!).

Julia Roberts is fabulous in this and it is not hard to see a future star in Stephan James. The chemistry between them is as good as it was between Roberts and Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief, that last solid paranoia thriller directed by the always underrated Alan J. Pakula (let's pretend that The Devil's Own never happened). I even wanted to think that the pelican in Homecoming was another tribute to Pakula. I am being too enthusiastic, I know.

The only flaw? When you have Sissy Spacek, you want more Sissy Spacek.

November 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbonobo

this was one bingeable series. every episode flew by but you'd think because the running time is so short, the episodes would feel incomplete but it's actually a slow paced show, every revelation didn't seem rushed and the show was primarily about conversations. julia roberts gives a great performance which should win her an emmy. her monologue in episode 6 was heartbreaking and the final scene in episode 10 is beautiful but episode 8 should be her emmy submission.

and stephan james is a star.

November 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbitemylip23

Never been a big Julia fan, but she is marvelous in this. Career best work and James is fantastic as well.

November 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHeyya

Would you recommend this for people who've listened to the podcast? I admit that I watched episode 1 and was rather uninspired, since it almost exactly mirrored the plot of the podcast. And I'm spoiled for the big reveal, the horror!

November 14, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

Where would it rank on Julia's best of list.

November 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

James from Ames, I haven’t listened to the postcast but I read somewhere that the plot of the TV series diverges from the original halfway through the season. I don’t know how it is in the podcast but, rather than a big revelation, the series unravels everything little by little and in a very clever way.

November 14, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbonobo

Next year's Emmys are gonna be like the Oscars if Big Little Lies premieres before then and you have Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts competing for Best TV Drama Actress. And Meryl in supporting or guest and Amy Adams over in limited series. Wow.

November 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

I love Julia (and Hong, Sissy and Marianne) but this just didn't do it for me. I didn't become invested until about episode 7, and by then it was a little too little too late.

November 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJes V.

I binge-watched this series and I like Homecoming overall. I didn't read anything about it prior to watching it and it was only in the first episode did I realise what 'homecoming' meant. The series is an object lesson in how to tell a story slowly but captivatingly. I didn't find it boring but then I am used to slow cinema, so maybe I am not the authority here.

Here's what I like about Homecoming.

I like the aerial views used in every episode. It makes the scene look like all sharp angles and corners and imprisonment yet all-seeing at the same time.

The music used was quite good if a bit OTT (not bad in my books if done deliberately). The music supervisor needs to be applauded for bringing the choicest soundscapes to score a scene. There is a scene where Thomas Carrasco met with Colin Belfast for the first time and the music used was "Bucket of Blood". It's a deft way to both sell the irony of the scene and pay homage to Carrie.

The pelican and the goldfish are also well-deployed pieces that describe Heidi's life and her penchant for order. Also, there were nice camera works and split screens of two people speaking on the phones which tells a lot about their characters by the way they move while on the phone; the highways and beds as signifiers of distance; and lots of face juxtapositions. In the beginning and ending of each episode there is always ambient sound that plays before a scene is shown; while the end credits are shown the image and sound continue. Close-ups are used a lot for heightened drama. Deleuze will be proud of these image-movements.

Performances were also top-notch. Julia Roberts is fun to watch.She registers the conflicting emotions on her face transparently, movingly. I can't take my eyes off her even when she's mostly frowns and worried looks with occasional flashes of her magnetic smile. Stephan James is also a magnetic presence and his scenes with Julia Roberts crackle with an unknowable yet very present electric spark; Bobby Cannavale nailed the glibness down pat; Hong Chau's last scenes were powerful most especially the scenes in the end credits of the final episode. Sissy Spacek was not in a lot of scenes but she's a comforting presence. There's something downhome and cozy about the way she stands by the doorway, the way she looks sideways: she reminds me of home-baked cookies which are always delicious.

Yet the true MVPs for me are the two characters who are quite unlike each other but were the beating hearts of the story. Both are seeking the truth in their own ways and not afraid to face the Establishment: Shea Whigham and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.

Whigham as Tom Carrasco is a little bit passive when compared to Belfast, but he is solid, reliable and someone you believe can be this persistent and ethical and determined despite experiencing awkward mishaps and not glib enough in presenting himself to people he wants to talk to. But he has an almost spiritual calm, quiet elegance and blue chip honesty. Every time he is around, he controls the scene. Marianne Jean-Baptiste's no-nonsense persona in her TV and film appearances are once again deployed powerfully and affectingly here. In fact, the two occasions I was misty-eyed involved scenes with her - especially when she expresses her love to her son. Her kitchen-sink realism was totally in sync with her delineation of a Haitian patois-speaking Gloria Morisseau.

I like the Random Harvest-ish ending of the story. I thought maybe Heidi will say her own version of "Oh Smithy, there is still time."

November 16, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Really liked this series. I hardly ever binge anything but this was very bingeable. The episodes were really well paced, the direction and cinematography were fantastic, and the cast was great. I would've loved to see what Keener could've done with this but Roberts did a really good job.

And can we talk about Thomas' glasses? I have no idea what they're called but I want them!

November 19, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

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