By Travis M. Andrews
There were so many ways “Homecoming” could have gone wrong.
The show — directed by Sam Esmail, the creator and showrunner of “Mr. Robot” — is based on the Eli Horowitz- and Micah Bloomberg-penned podcast of the same name. It follows the story of Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts in the show), who worked as a therapist for Homecoming, a program helping soldiers transitioning from the field to civilian life. Years after leaving the program, Bergman realizes she might not know the whole story behind it.
The 10-episode drama from Amazon (whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post) is one representative of a new form of storytelling, one with a high chance of failure: the television adaptation of a podcast. The televised version of “Comedy Bang! Bang!” ran for five seasons but failed to capture the manic energy of the podcast. The highly anticipated television version of the true crime pod “Dirty John,” which begins Nov. 25, “only managed to spin a new con — promising dessert and delivering a plate of lukewarm leftovers,” wrote The Washington Post’s Beth Butler. “Alex, Inc.,” inspired by the podcast “StartUp” has a measly 49 percent on Metacritic.
That’s what makes the critical success of “Homecoming” stand out. The stylish show may bring to mind the 1970s paranoia thriller films it pays homage to, such as “Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men,” but it’s sui generis. Which raises the question: What did the trio of creatives behind this show do differently?
One of the most obvious aberrations is that “Homecoming” is a drama that takes care of business in just 24 to 37 minutes — most skewing closer to the former. More important, though, is the process by which it was created.
Bloomberg said that protecting the vision becomes important — so finding the right person to adapt it was critical. Both the show and the podcast have the feeling of a thriller in a bygone age, one not strung together by scenes of huge explosions and car chases. The tension instead derives from the characters and their shifting relationships.
“It was a good decision to work with Sam, because I think it would have been more normal for someone to come in and say, ‘This is a great idea, and now let’s open it up.’ What drew Sam to the podcast was these characters, and the fact that their relationships and conversations are the story’s twists and turns,” Bloomberg said. “It felt like we were still working on the same project.”
“I initially bristled at the idea of adapting something that was made for a format . . . so I listened to it initially as a fan,” Esmail said. He was immediately enthralled, binging the entire thing in one sitting. “There was something refreshing about the way the podcast used the thriller genre in an intimate, more character-based way. It was almost like it harked back to the classic Hitchcockian thrillers.”
Esmail’s approach meant that much of the story’s structure and dialogue could remain in place. Horowitz and Bloomberg wrote the television scripts, with very few major changes from the podcast. The question now was what does this world look like?
No one knew at first. Take the setting, for example. The Homecoming program is set in an office building.
“We didn’t even wonder what the office park looked like,” Horowitz said of the podcast. “We really just set our brains to audio mode in a way that seems a little bit weird now.”
Even the extra details that went beyond the dialogue were only there to serve the audio. For example a fish tank was placed in Bergman’s office because they didn’t want to have a narrator and needed background sounds to clue the listener in on where they were. It became the show’s opening shot, which feels like a revealing metaphor about her flawed attempts to protect others.
The creators had to figure out more than just the setting. At one point, for example, there’s a montage showing how the medicine given at the program is made from small, Southeast Asian red berries.
“I remember someone asking about the look of the plants that are being ground in Vietnam. I was like, ‘Plants!’ It was inherently uninteresting to me what these things looked like,” Bloomberg said. Horowitz, though, was fascinated. “Eli was, like, locked in his office for two weeks, working on this plant.”
And since much of the podcast is simply people speaking to each other, whether in a therapy session or over the phone, finding a way to make that interesting on-screen was another challenge. Esmail’s stylish, inventive camera angles and quick cuts do just this. Take a scene in which two men eat pineapple for breakfast while talking about the program. One man doesn’t trust it, while the other is fully invested.
The tension between the two men is inherent, and Esmail plays it up by cutting quickly between them and framing both men at strange, close-up angles. The shots get closer and closer to the men’s faces as their conversation escalates, making the viewer squirm with discomfort.
Meanwhile, the frequent phone calls between Bobby Cannavale’s Colin Belfast and Roberts’s Bergman are suffused with energy. Belfast has a wireless earbud and speaker set up, allowing him to move freely and get distracted by whatever is happening around him, while Bergman tends to be stationary, stuck at a desk. The scenes are shown in split-screen.
Esmail wanted the phone calls to feel like “you’re eavesdropping on this real-time conversation, which is where the split-screen idea came about, because you’re constantly seeing them in motion. I think that helped the phone calls feel very different than if you’re just popping back and forth between them.”
The style, though, always informs the character, Esmail said. He starts with the question “How do we show this point-of-view or that point-of-view in an interesting way? And that, oftentimes, will involve how do we move the camera or treat the frame in a way we haven’t quite seen before but is very specific.” So, for example, when the frantic Cannavale is on screen, the audience can expect a more quickly moving camera.
And, Horowitz pointed out, it’s important to know “when to protect what was unusual about the podcast, and when to understand that TV has different expectations. Not just visual things but the pacing, the rhythm, the genre — all these things.”