It’s weird to think about, really. It’s 2018, we have more shows than ever, available on more outlets than ever, and there’s still a lack of truly interesting television. A lot of that is a result of copycats and imitators flooding the zone, which is why you have a bunch of law enforcement procedurals on the networks and a bunch of bleak series about morally conflicted jerks on cable. It’s one of the things I like and appreciate most about Homecoming. It has mysteries and things to say and about a dozen tricks up its sleeve to help it drive home its mysteries and things to say. It is nothing if not consistently interesting.
But we’ll get to that soon enough. First, some background. Homecoming is a new Amazon series that is based on a scripted podcast of the same name, a star-studded work of fiction created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who also serve as writers for the show. It follows a therapist named Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) across two timelines as she and others attempt to figure out what really happened — in general, and with one specific patient, Walter Cruz (Stephan James) — in a shady private Tampa facility that allegedly helped veterans living with PTSD and re-acclimating to civilian life. There are twists and surprising reveals and shady conglomerates and, well, none of this sounds all that revolutionary yet, does it? It sounds like Maniac meets Westworld with Julia Roberts, which is still something I would watch.
What makes it so interesting is the execution. All 10 of the episodes — each clocking in at or around a refreshing 30 minutes — are directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail and, man, is that guy good at what he does. There are long slow zooms and shifts in perspective and a lot of the fancy tricks you’ve seen him pull off with Mr. Robot. Characters are framed off to the side or pushed up against the top or bottom of the screen. The two timelines are filmed in different aspect ratios, one more standard and one almost like a cell phone screen. It all serves two purposes as you’re watching at home: One, it makes even the slower moments of the plot feel interesting; two, it throws you off-balance just enough for the reveals to knock you over.
The best example of this is the conversations. A conversation is just two people talking. The words they’re saying carry the weight. But in Esmail’s hands, with edits and changing camera angles and a series of musical cues that rule super hard (technical term), those suckers sizzle. Some of the tensest moments of the entire series take place in Heidi’s office when she’s having what seems to be a pleasant conversation with Walter. There are split-screen phone calls with her and her hard-charging boss that almost need to be watched twice to pick up on everything. Esmail is doing things no one else on television is doing and it’s a blast to watch.
I don’t mean to poo-poo the performances here. Julia Roberts is terrific as Heidi in all of her forms, from confident to skeptical to utterly confused. She fills up the whole screen whenever she’s on it, which doesn’t always work when movie stars come to television. Like, she’s Julia Roberts and someone gave her a big meaty role, a kind of “what if Erin Brockovich was depressed and wore baggy sweaters” performance. She has a lot to do and most of the on-screen action is on her shoulders. Of course she’s good.
Bobby Cannavale plays her boss, Colin. Bobby Cannavale was born to play dudes like Colin. Brash, overconfident, slimy, overbearing, fast-talking, all of it. He’s so good at playing this character that I both hope and fear he gets stuck playing them forever (hope, for me, because it’s fun to watch; fear, for him, because I imagine he’d like to do other things at some point). Shea Whigham plays the Department of Defense investigator tasked with looking into the whole thing and he nails the bureaucratic impotence of a mid-level government employee. Sissy Spacek plays Heidi’s mom and I said “Whoa, it’s Sissy Spacek” when I saw her. All good things.
The plot spins itself out deliberately but not slowly. The 30-minute episodes help with that. Morsels of information are served one at a time, never more, each one answering one question while raising about a dozen more, and then boom, the episode is over. It’s a “leave you wanting more” approach that makes the show feel frantic and tense even as it drips plot points, as opposed to Amazon’s other big fancy star-studded prestige drama from earlier this month, The Romanoffs, with its 70-90 minute episodes that feel bloated and indulgent. Shorter isn’t always better but a densely packed half-hour is sure more enjoyable than a sprawling hour and a half.