There are two types of “what the hell is going on here?” TV.
There’s the supposedly complex but really just confusing kind, which makes you feel so lost that you can’t figure out what’s actually happening, even after reading multiple recaps. “I don’t know what the hell is going on here!” you scream midway through season one, then give up on the whole thing and start rewatching old, extremely understandable episodes of Friends.
Then there’s the good kind of “what the hell is going on here?” TV, which presents a version of a specific reality, hints that there’s more to that reality than meets the eye, and then slowly reveals additional details that speak to the full truth of its characters’ experiences. In the middle of watching a show like that, you say, “I’m not sure what the hell is going on here … and I love it.”
Homecoming is that second type of series, an irresistible mystery-box drama that tells its story with carefully considered details and superb acting that grounds the whole piece in reality. Some of the best shows of this fall season — Forever, Maniac, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Good Place, which isn’t new but is still totally rockin’ it and therefore worth mentioning — are exploring what happens when a person’s consciousness and/or subconsciousness is manipulated, all while messing with viewers’ minds in the process. Homecoming, which starts streaming November 2 on Amazon, is another “best” to add to that list.
Created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, the duo behind the scripted podcast that inspired this series, and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, Homecoming follows Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a therapist working at a Tampa facility designed to help veterans overcome PTSD and adjust to civilian life. At that facility, called Homecoming, Heidi begins treating Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a young soldier who lost some friends while serving overseas but seems remarkably well-adjusted. He’s an ideal patient: agreeable, affable, and eager to make the most of the program.
But it’s clear right away that things aren’t all positivity and Florida sunshine at Homecoming. For starters, Heidi has an extremely hyper boss, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), who regularly calls from off-site to bark orders and threats at her. The success of the treatment center is vitally important to him, which is odd because he’s never actually there. Then there are the flash-forwards to a near-future timeline where Heidi is living a very different sort of life, one in which she works as a waitress at a dockside seafood restaurant called Fat Morgan’s. When Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a Department of Defense investigator, shows up at Fat Morgan’s asking Heidi questions about her time at Homecoming, she’s evasive. What is she trying to hide? Then another question arises: What if she’s not trying to hide anything, but genuinely doesn’t remember what she did there?
Questions beget more questions. What the heck is Colin’s deal and who is he working for? What’s the source of the complaint that Carrasco is investigating? And for real: What is the actual purpose of Homecoming? As Shrier (Jeremy Allen White), one of Walter’s fellow soldiers, notes in the second episode, they’ve been told that the facility is located in Florida but they’re never allowed to leave. How do they even know they’re actually in Florida?
A sense of distrust with authority, the government, and even reality itself runs strong throughout Homecoming, which makes it perfectly attuned to our era of unreality. It’s also material that’s perfectly suited to the gifts of Esmail, whose Mr. Robot also is similarly saturated in paranoia, head games, and founded doubts about the Establishment. Visually and aesthetically, Homecoming has a real Mr. Robot vibe. Esmail’s love of a quality overhead pan is once again in full effect, and so is his meticulous use of framing: While the half of the story that focuses on what occurs at Homecoming is presented in widescreen, the flash-forward timeline shrinks the aspect ratio as if we’re watching what’s going on through an iPhone camera. Just like Heidi, we only get access to part of the picture, not the whole thing.
The difference is that while Mr. Robot has taken some indulgent and unnecessary detours, Homecoming never once loses its thread. It helps enormously that each episode runs for roughly 30 minutes, a short enough run time to keep things tight and the sense of mystery and suspense high throughout. (Please TV people, make more half-hour dramas! A nation of TV critics turns its lonely, bleary eyes to you.)
Esmail, Horowitz, Bloomberg, and the other Homecoming writers are also assisted enormously by this cast. James, who was terrific as Jesse Owens in the underappreciated film Race and starred in last year’s Shots Fired, is on the verge of a breakout given his appearance here and in Barry Jenkins’s forthcoming If Beale Street Could Talk. He’s one of those actors who makes purposeful choices and then makes them look so effortless, you don’t think about how much work he’s actually doing. As Walter, everything he does — the calmness in his voice, the way he holds himself in ideal ergonomic alignment while sitting in a chair, his easy smile — conveys that he’s a good soldier and also, perhaps, that he doesn’t need to be at Homecoming at all. He and Roberts have an instantly comfortable rapport with each other that suggests there’s something between Heidi and Walter that extends beyond a mere therapist/client relationship.
Casting Roberts as Heidi is perhaps Homecoming’s greatest stroke of casting genius. Heidi needs to single-handedly convince a band of military men to trust her and, more broadly, to trust the government that’s convinced them to commit to the facility. Who better to pull that off than the lady with the America’s sweetheart smile? Heidi also acts as our proxy of sorts, which means we must trust and relate to her responses to her surroundings, too. And we do: Roberts, in her episodic TV debut, consistently swings from confident and compassionate to genuinely confused in a way that never registers as false. It’s been a few years — since August: Osage County, or perhaps even longer — since her film work has afforded her the opportunity to explore so many layers in a character. It’s nice to see her truly sink into and become this woman.
Roberts and James are surrounded on all sides by great actors, including Cannavale, who’s all kinds of twitchy as the dishonest Colin; Whigham, bringing quiet dignity to the classic hapless bureaucrat; a grumpy Alex Karpovsky as a Homecoming therapist who fails to relate to his charges; Sissy Spacek as Heidi’s clueless yet protective mom; and Marianne Jean-Baptiste delivering a powerhouse of a performance as Gloria Cruz, Walter’s mother who has a bad feeling about his treatment. In a move that will delight fans of My Best Friend’s Wedding, there’s even a Dermot Mulroney/Julia Roberts reunion in which the two finally get to be romantic partners. (Spoiler alert: Don’t get your hopes too high about that relationship.)
Homecoming is the TV equivalent of a head without a hair out of place. The symbols and logos associated with the Homecoming facility and other businesses that become central to the story, as well as the compositions of Esmail’s shots themselves, repeatedly emphasize the concept of doubles and symmetry. (It’s not a coincidence that Homecoming is located in an office park named Mirror Pond.) Even the props speak to that theme: Carrasco has a pair of magnetic framed glasses that he constantly breaks and reattaches at the bridge, a physical illustration of the investigator’s determination to put all the pieces together.
There are moments in Homecoming that are positively Hitchcockian, particularly with regard to Esmail’s choice of imagery. In episode three, there’s a vertical shot of Carrasco descending a flight of stairs that’s deliberately evocative of Vertigo. In a later episode, Esmail deploys a Hitchcock zoom so glorious it deserves an Oscar, even though, yes, I know, Oscars are not given to TV shows. Elements like that and a score that sometimes literally borrows from older films — like Alan J. Pakula’s Kluteand Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill — infuse Homecoming with a classic conspiracy theory thriller spirit that makes it feel a bit old-school and thoroughly contemporary all at once. That’s an appropriate combo for a series based on something modern (a podcast) that has the feel of a throwback (a radio serial).
The prevailing tone in Homecoming is tense and serious, but there are moments of humor too. An endearing jokiness exists between Heidi and Walter, and it reaches a comedic crescendo in episode five via a series of pranks punctuated by a beautifully delivered kicker from Roberts. Thrillers, and especially ones made with such almost scientific precision, tend to be chilly. But there is warmth in Homecoming, a reflection that Heidi genuinely cares about helping these men who served on our nation’s behalf.
Most of all, this show reminds how vital it is to make connections — both on a personal level and when it comes to all those dots that, if linked, will finally explain the question that keeps teasing us in episode after episode: What the hell is going on at Homecoming?