With Homecoming, a neo-noir psychological thriller, movie star Julia Roberts finally makes the jump to the small screen. She’s not the first prominent film actor to do so — Winona Ryder in Stranger Things, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies come to mind — but she is one of the biggest names so far to make the leap. There’s a reason she’s chosen Homecoming for her TV debut: the series, based on the epynomous hit podcast created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, is well-scripted, beautifully shot and draws the viewer in from episode one.
In the series’ opening scene, we meet Heidi Bergman (Roberts), a therapist and the director of Homecoming Transitional Support Centre — a corporate facility which aims to help army veterans adjust to civilian life — and Walter Cruz (Stephan James), an optimistic veteran enrolled into the programme. We then see Heidi four years later, working at a rundown seafood shack in a small town. Heidi claims she doesn’t remember anything about her time at Homecoming. Is Heidi pretending or does she really not recall anything? And what happened to Walter? The viewer is as intrigued as Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a low-level civil servant from the Department of Defense investigating the Centre.
Homecoming moves back and forth, from 2018 when Heidi was working at the Centre to the future in 2022, each episode peeling back a little more of the mystery surrounding the facility and its many inhabitants. Director Sam Esmail elevates the series with his visual aesthetics and his decision to focus on the suspense instead of the action. Homecoming is shot in a style that reminds one of the paranoid films of the ’70s and Esmail uses split screens, unusual camera angles, complicated single shots and suspenseful music scores from thriller classics to great effect.
A visual homage to noir filmmakers such as Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan J.Pakula and David Fincher, Homecoming is a treat to watch. Overhead shots throughout the series — of characters in various settings, such as a doctor’s room, the fountain outside the Centre, a high-tech rec room — remind viewers of the oppressive power structure the characters are caught in, and seems to be inspired by the Library of Congress scene in Pakula’s All the President’s Men, where the camera slowly zooms out to show the protagonists as tiny dots.
An Amazon TV series starring Julia Roberts in the lead role, Homecoming is a visual homage to noir filmmakers
Ariel shots of a van driven by two soldiers escaping Homecoming and a scene of the mail being delivered to the Centre evokes images of Fincher’s Zodiac. The conversations between Heidi and her boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale) are shown in split screen — clearly a nod to De Palma (Carrie, Mission Impossible, Dressed to Kill). There are also gorgeous top-down shots of winding staircases, a homage to Hitchcock, the master of suspense.
For Homecoming, Esmail has raided the catalogue of musical scores from thriller classics including The Thing, All the President’s Men, Carrie, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Vertigo, leaving an aural breadcrumb for cinephiles. For example, in the opening scene, as the camera pans away from Heidi’s office — shot in a sweeping, slow style similar to De Palma’s — Pino Donaggio’s score from Dressed to Kill plays in the background. This not only evokes the feel of a ’70s thriller classic but is a clue for avid film fans — De Palma’s Dressed to Kill is also about a pyschiatrist with a secret.
While a psychological thriller, the TV series is, at its heart, a drama about the relationship between Heidi and Walter — and the chemistry between the two lead actors is what makes Homecoming so compelling. Whigham plays Carrasco as a hapless but well-meaning investigator to perfection. Sissy Spacek as Heidi’s mother is sadly under-utilised — there’s very little for her to do here besides reassure Heidi and open doors for visitors. Bobby Cannavale is at his best as the condescending, manupulative boss Colin. Marianne Jean-Baptiste leaves her mark as Walter’s mother Gloria Cruz even with the brief screen time she’s given.
The series is also surprisingly low-tech — in 2022 Carrasco is equipped with a writing pad, a pen and a hunch — and is part of the charm of Homecoming. Esmail chose to make each of the 10 episodes a short but suspenseful 30 minutes — the same length as the original podcast — an oddity in the world of TV dramas which are usually an hour long. Given how superbly the director uses the time to move the story forward, one wonders if more dramas should be this short.
If there’s one series right now that deserves the title ‘bingeworthy’, it is Homecoming. Both the current season and the second season — which is slated to air next year — can be streamed on Amazon.
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 30th, 2018