'Homecoming': TV Review | TIFF 2018

A throwback thriller, expertly done.
11/2/2018

Director Sam Esmail and Julia Roberts give Amazon an intriguing, visually stunning new drama series, the first episodes of which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Let Sam Esmail make anything he wants. If that's not a rule of television, it should be.

The creator, writer and director of USA's Mr. Robot, which redefined what a television series could do visually, is the director and executive producer of Amazon's latest series, Homecoming, which dropped the first four of its 10 inaugural season episodes at the Toronto Film Festival on Friday and immediately added more buzz to Amazon's emerging Prime Video brand.

Starring Julia Roberts in her first lead television role and based on the acclaimed podcast (yes, podcast) of the same name from Gimlet Media, and creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, Homecoming is a visually dazzling thriller that plays on memory, the military industrial complex, conspiracy and unchecked government privilege to immediately set the hook as an intriguing, ambitious work of television.

Employing some of the same destabilizing visual challenges to accepted TV conventions as Mr. Robot does — courtesy once again of Esmail and Emmy-winning director of photography Tod Campbell — Homecoming is a tightly packaged, easily bingeable drama in the (roughly) 30-minute space that tracks a Department of Defense subcontracted experiment (or "initiative") that helps transition soldiers from active duty on the battlefield to normal life back in the States. The series takes place in the present of 2018 and in the near future of 2022, tracking the story of what went wrong at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center in Florida.

Roberts plays Heidi, a counselor/therapist at Homecoming who works with returning soldiers, in particular Walter (Stephan James, Race). Bobby Cannavale plays Colin, Heidi's sketchy boss, who is always away and contacting her by phone, prodding her to keep extracting information from the soldiers. It's clear Heidi is trying to counsel these young men back into society but Colin is merely interested in her extracting whatever it is they are holding on to, PTSD-style, that might be harmful back home.

In 2022, Heidi is a waitress at a cheap seafood restaurant. Something went sideways, and that's the gist of Homecoming.

It's a perfect vehicle for Esmail, who was a huge fan of the Homecoming podcast (which is basically styled as a radio play that featured Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer in the main roles). 

Horowitz, a novelist and editor, first started putting the podcast together in 2016 and worked with TV and film sound mixer Bloomberg, who also just happened to have skills as a playwright. The duo created this scripted podcast that generated interest in the industry very quickly, with Universal Cable Productions getting the rights to produce Homecoming as a series and quickly getting on board in co-production with Amazon Studios, which gave the show an immediate two-season pickup. It didn't hurt that Esmail was already a huge fan of the series and had an overall deal with Universal Cable Productions. Roberts, who was also listening and in love with the podcast, eventually agreed to her first lead role on TV only if Esmail would direct all the episodes (he does).

And in the process of that direction, Esmail and Campbell put a visual stamp on Homecoming that rivals the aural tricks that listeners of the podcast came to love (since there were no visuals, the sounds of birds, of bubbles in a fish tank, of static-heavy phone calls, etc., were essential) — and not only turned an auditory concept into a TV show but one that bears the unmistakable fingerprints of the Mr. Robot crew, especially Campbell and production designer Anastasia White. 

In Esmail's hands, Mr. Robot redefined shot-framing for traditional television in a bold attempt to leave viewers as unsettled as the show's main character, who not only suffers from dissociative personality disorder but is also a drug addict. The directing was brilliantly conceived and executed for effect, and in Homecoming there is something deeply, mysteriously off in the story and so the visuals are working in creative (and sometimes funny) ways to express that. How do you take a fantastic podcast/radio play that people are extrapolating in their minds and turn it into something whole, something visual that also retains that important dialogue-heavy construct without it ending up as just two people in a room and a series of phone calls? You call Esmail, apparently.

There's a malevolent, Hitchcockian aspect to elements of Homecoming — something in the normal that's slightly off and menacing, just under the surface. This is particularly true when the series shifts to 2022 and Esmail employs a jarring aspect-ratio change, moving from 16:9 widescreen in the 2018 scenes to an old-school boxy 4:3 ratio in the 2022 scenes (and yes, flipping the trope seems intentional, just as making a time jump to 2022 seems almost humorous because, of course, nothing in the world has changed to some sci-fi model — it might be the least sexy but coldly original time jump in TV history).

At the same time, the bright hues and warm, upbeat music in the 2018 scenes give way to dull, depressing brown hues and staccato, threatening music in 2022.

There's even a retro, flat feel to how Esmail and Campbell set up their close-ups in 2022, which almost mimic old TV series while in 2018, similar to their groundbreaking work on Mr. Robot, characters are seen in modern, off-kilter close-ups or set into the lower corners of the frame. The result of both is riveting despite calling attention to itself. Homecoming is a story that evolves in the writing, in what's spoken or unspoken, what's admitted and what's self-edited, and the robustly alive visual approach doesn't distract from that. The visuals and even the over-the-top musical choices enhance the creepy feeling of what went wrong at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center.

About that: Even if you're not a follower of the podcast (as I'm not), beware of thinking you've got the main theme (memory) figured out here, as Horowitz and Bloomberg are unlikely to duplicate all aspects of the podcast without expanding it and Esmail already has proved with Mr. Robot that he likes the audience to think they've got something figured out when he's got three or four other twists ahead. Then again, maybe season one won't rewrite the concept entirely — but it'll look damn good and be bingeworthy in the process, if the first four episodes are any indication.

Amazon really has something here. Homecoming is intriguing as a story, and the self-aware visuals and odd little touches that you'll discover going forward are fun — while at the same time you never lose the sense that something really menacing is about to unfold. Credit the casting and performances of Roberts and Cannavale as polar opposites, and there are plenty of fine performances wherever you look, but it could be that Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) steals these early episodes as a DOD investigator in 2022 trying to figure out what happened at Homecoming four years prior and what might be still going on without anyone knowing. Add it to the elements that make Homecoming a series worth waiting for.

Cast: Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James, Alex Karpovsky, Sissy Spacek, Dermot Mulroney, Shea Whigham, Jeremy Allen White, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Frankie Shaw 

Created and written by: Eli Horowitz, Micah Bloomberg

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Executive producers: Esmail, Roberts, Horowitz, Bloomberg, Chad Hamilton, Chris Giliberti, Alex Blumberg, Matt Lieber

Premieres Nov. 2 on Amazon Prime Video