After launching several shockingly expensive projects that didn’t quite make the grade, it seems Amazon finally has an excellent show. With no example to follow, Sam Esmail, most widely known for creating the sci-fi thriller “Mr. Robot,” masterfully developed a popular podcast into a well-told and suspenseful television series. The full first season of “Homecoming” was released on Amazon Prime earlier in November, marking the company’s best effort in original programming so far this year.
“Homecoming” tells the sordid tale of Heidi Bergman, played by a career-best Julia Roberts. Bergman is ostensibly a cognitive therapist at a treatment center, Homecoming, for veterans returning from war. The story is told intermittently over two timelines, one in 2018 and one in 2022.
To open the series, the 2018 plot is shot in full, clear high-definition. The music is upbeat, and there is a sense of hope for returning soldier Walter Cruz as he begins to acclimate to the Homecoming facility. The later timeline is shot in 1:1 aspect ratio, with a dreary backdrop, making the visual small and far less clear. Heidi looks much older than the four years gone would suggest. She’s fallen on hard times, now working as a waitress in a rural diner.
As both timelines develop, it becomes obvious the visual of the smaller screen is symbolic of all that is missing from the characters’ lives after their time at Homecoming. As the story nears its pinnacle, the aspect ratio switches timelines, a fantastic visual trick that adds surprising insight and texture to the suspense of the finale.
Esmail, who also directed every episode, borrowed on the visions of psycho-thriller directors Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma, both of whom are masterfully represented. Esmail used extreme camera angles for a chilling effect, telling a story that was not only well-paced, but visually stunning. The score, which changed from episode to episode, was borrowed from several thriller and horror movies from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The vintage music almost subconsciously brings the viewer into a Hitchcockian trance as the story amps up in intensity.
Heidi is initially presented as a very bright, nurturing, but possibly complicit staff member of a treatment center that is involved in some shady dealings. Roberts plays two different Heidis over the four-year period, and though the change from one Heidi to the other is subtle, there’s an inherent creepiness to her aloofness in the future timeline.
The actress plays each version of the character with an eerie and mysterious separation that’s intriguing from the beginning. Her varied character choices for the role truly propel the story, and become so familiar to the viewer that visual changes are hardly necessary to remind us what timeline we’re in. This was Roberts’s first television role, and it wouldn’t have been an easy project for any actor. She showcased the dramatic ability we’re all aware of, but have seen only rarely in her recent film work.
Roberts is supported by a strong cast, particularly Stephan James, who plays Cruz. Bobby Cannavale portrays Heidi’s boss, Colin Belfast, and proves his worth in the role of yet another mysterious figure with dubious motives. Zealous investigator Shea Whigham and Dermot Mulroney also play pivotal roles. No character seemed underdeveloped— even Heidi’s mom, who had little screen time, was played by Sissy Spacek. (They spared no expense!)
“Homecoming” works while other high-budget television series don’t, for a number of subtle reasons. This show is disciplined. It has a story to tell, and it doesn’t overindulge in its quest to be the next great psycho-thriller at the expense of a compelling narrative. There is a reason for everything that is done from a production standpoint, even if it is not immediately apparent.
Little clues in the first episodes tie into later episodes, and their value is made known, even when their meaning is not revealed until much later. For the most part, this show doesn’t idle on unnecessary elements. Even in scenes with little action, there are usually character changes that become vital to the thrilling finale.
Amazon has already begun development of the second season, which will continue the story told in the first. As the first television show to have been adapted from a successful podcast, it paves the way for creative audio programs to find life on the small screen. “Homecoming” proves that the right combination of story, talent, and discipline can become something truly entertaining.