What’s remarkable about seeing Julia Roberts on Amazon’s new conspiracy thriller Homecoming is how unremarkable it is to see her there. Nineteen years ago (sheesh, we got old) Roberts appeared on an episode of NBC’s Law & Order and you would’ve thought the Hollywood sign was coming down. Movie stars were not meant to do TV! TV stars were meant to aspire to be movie stars, but it was a one-way motorway. These days, Emma Stone is hopping over to Netflix a year after she wins Best Actress because Maniac looks like a good time; Meryl Streep is filming scenes for season 2 of Big Little Lies, which only exists because Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman wanted to keep their TV fun times going; and Julia Roberts is starring in an Amazon TV series based on a successful podcast. The walls have all come tumbling down, and seeing someone like Julia Roberts bring her star wattage to Homecoming — which debuts on Amazon Prime on November 2nd — only makes you that much more curious about what kind of a project it is.
Based on the 2016 podcast of the same name, Homecoming isn’t super forthcoming about its plot right away. At the outset, it’s about the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a live-in facility for American soldiers returning from war overseas. It’s part halfway house, part decompression chamber, and part training facility, where the young servicemen — with everything they’ve seen and done and experienced in the Middle East — are able to work through whatever post-traumatic business there is to be worked through and ultimately transition back into civilian life. Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker and quasi-therapist for the soldiers, though that semantic gulf between “caseworker” and “therapist” says a lot about what we do and don’t know about Homecoming.
We know it’s a government program being run by corporate interests, which means we’re in the belly of the beast when it comes to how the military industrial complex operates in 2018. President Eisenhower coined that term at the end of the 1950s, when the atomic age and the accompanying Cold War put the government, the military, and private businesses in bed with each other, and they haven’t come up for air since. These days, nearly everything about the American military experience can be privatized, and in Homecoming, that includes the transition back to domesticity. Stephan James, who shined in Ava DuVernay’s Selma and will soon be earning raves for his performance in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, plays Walter Cruz, Bergman’s most significant patient. Their therapy/conversation scenes have an easy chemistry to them, just two incredibly charismatic people having a talk, even if we all suspect there’s something happening beneath the surface.
And something there is! We’ve become too conditioned by movies and TV shows not to be suspicious of an outfit like Homecoming. And that’s not even getting into the atmosphere created by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, who directs all ten episodes. Esmail is an expert at bringing a kind of arch paranoia that makes everything feel like it might not quite be happening upon a modern-day, human-stakes story. On Mr. Robot, the gag was that it all wasn’thappening, at least not in the same way we (and Esmail’s main character) were seeing it. Homecoming lets its audience in on the conspiracy bit by bit. There’s Bergman’s superior, played with car-salesman slickness by Bobby Cannavale, the rare actor who can be domineering and disarming in the same conversation. There’s Boardwalk Empire‘s Shea Whigham in flash-forward scenes as a Department of Defense investigator tracking down … something bad that happened at Homecoming.
Clearly something is up with the soldiers in the program. They seem fine one minute only to fly off the handle the next. Their memories of what they did out in the field of battle have holes and divots in them. Shameless star Jeremy Allen White plays one of Cruz’s friends who is quick to point out what’s so strange about the facility, how it appears to exist outside of any defined place. And once again, all our little brains that have watched TV shows and movies like this before start hamster-wheeling like crazy.
Sam Esmail is a smart enough director to know that the days of being able to fool a fully compliant audience are over. And since the 30-minute episode structure — which keeps the whole show moving at a zippy, binge-friendly pace — means new revelations for the audience at a much more frequent pace than these mystery series usually deliver, Esmail trades in viewer obfuscation for a more general strategy of unnerving. Email employs it all: bird’s eye camera angles, lingering on a shot for too long, and at least one instance where wildlife intrudes where it’s not meant to. Each episode ends with the final scene continuing on underneath the credits, and viewers are going to go mad trying to figure out what information they’re supposed to glean from these credits scenes where nothing is happening.
This all sounds like an exercise in frustration, but in fact it’s so much fun. There’s such a light, snappy energy to the whole thing. The Twilight Zone archness makes everything feel a little bit funny. Roberts, whose formidable boxy wig that’s stood so prominently in the show’s promotional materials is actually pretty functional when it comes to keeping the timelines straight, is really fantastic, whether it’s her one-on-one scenes with Stephan James or glamming herself down to play a diner waitress. And that’s not even getting into the once-in-a-lifetime chance to have Julia Roberts and Sissy Spacek (playing Heidi’s mother) sharing scenes.
Homecoming is fun, it’s fast, and it’s a conspiracy thriller that knows how smart it is to keep the audience looped in. And at 10 half-hour episodes, you’ll finish it in a day. The ideal weekend binge for troubled times. If you don’t mind being reminded that the military industrial complex is coming for us all, that is.