Homecoming is a hypnotic blend of old-school and new. It’s fronted by Julia Roberts, one of the last of the capital-M Movie Stars hailing from an era when the idea of doing a TV series would be unthinkable. It’s directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, who makes half of each episode look like a loving pastiche of Hitchcock and paranoid Seventies thrillers, while the other half looks like it was shot on an iPhone. Its story is adapted from a Gimlet Media podcast, and it remains taut as part of the welcome new trend of half-hour dramas. (It debuts Friday; I’ve seen all 10 episodes.) Parts of it take place a few years from now, yet it’s startlingly low-tech. (Its chief sleuth, a clumsy Columbo-type civil servant played winningly by Shea Whigham, relies on paper files, a flashlight and a pair of collapsible reading glasses.) It is the future and the past all at once and a pleasure to watch throughout.
Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, who in the present is the put-together and friendly director of the Homecoming program, designed to treat veterans with PTSD. Some four years later, she is a rumpled waitress who doesn’t recall a lot about her old job. How did she get from one spot to the other? How much does she really remember? Did Heidi’s slick corporate boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale with his full powers of smugness unleashed), do something to her? And what happened to her favorite patient, the charming Walter Cruz (the appealing and vulnerable Stephan James)? These mysteries and more unfold carefully and engagingly under the watch of Esmail and writers Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz. Questions are answered just when they should be — not dragged along, as often happens in streaming dramas — and in ways that illuminate the characters rather than undercut them.
Esmail gets Roberts to dial back her star wattage, though he deploys her famous smile strategically and potently. This is Julia Roberts, actress, first and foremost, and she gives a specific and modulated performance — two of them, really, since waitress Heidi seems so disconnected from therapist Heidi. (Even when My Best Friend’s Wedding’s Dermot Mulroney turns up as Heidi’s loser boyfriend, it feels like a relationship, not a reunion.) Roberts and James have abundant chemistry, which is crucial for a thriller built so much on two people just talking. The plot is intentionally slow to start, so the early episodes lean heavily on atmosphere and on how likable Heidi and Walter are together. Roberts and James more than deliver the latter, while Esmail is all over the former.
Esmail mostly sets aside the off-kilter framing of Mr. Robot for elegant and classical Hollywood compositions in the scenes at the Homecoming facility. Expect lots of complicated single takes and a soundtrack that samples a variety of vintage suspense movie scores. The future timeline is presented as a vertical video, with black bars on the right and left of the screen. This can be a periodic distraction, but the payoff that answers why those scenes look that way proves more than worth it.
The line between mediums has become blurred, but there are still ways that performances can be right for one and too big or small for another. Roberts meets Homecoming on the human level, right where it needs her to be. Even for the small screen, she’s a perfect fit.