'Homecoming' Season 2: TV Review

Homecoming -Season 2- Publicity Still 2- H 2020
Amazon Studios
In all ways less involving than the first season.

Amazon's thriller returns for a second season with Janelle Monáe taking the lead and only seven episodes to tell a smaller story.

The first season of Amazon's Homecoming was a stylish pastiche of '70s conspiracy thriller elements. As entertaining as it was — and as great as Julia Roberts and Stephan James were in the lead roles — the result still felt like a bit of a disappointment; every time the show appeared poised to open up or dig deeper, it instead retreated into a mystery that initially seemed complex but ultimately dodged nuances related to PTSD and memory.

The second Homecoming season — entirely Julia Roberts-free and reducing Stephan James to a prominent supporting role — might have been an opportunity to expand the world of the story (adapted from a podcast), to delve more substantially into character and conspiracy. Instead, it makes the first season look expansive by comparison. With an episode count trimmed to only seven half-hours, Homecoming returns as a tiny, almost ephemeral, mystery, a set of very simple puzzle pieces that need to be put together with almost no related emotional component. There's some minor elegance to how small creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg keep this chapter, which can be viewed as a curious checklist decently executed and finally nothing more.

The new season begins with a disoriented person (Janelle Monáe) floating in a rickety rowboat. Somebody standing back on shore flees when she calls for help. ID says her name is Jacqueline and that she's a veteran. A military picture featuring fellow soldiers with their faces X-ed out suggests she may be a target of some sort. There are indications she may be a drug user. She was seen fighting with an unknown man at a local bar called Skins, and she has a melon in her hotel room.

The first episode introduces a series of clues related to the stranger's identity and the next six episodes are about answering every peculiar question in the cleanest way possible. Since "Jacqueline's" problem is memory-related and the first season of Homecoming revolved around a shady program involving memory-erasing drugs, you can be sure that the plot will take us to the Geist Emergent Group, with our first introduction to Leonard Geist, played by Chris Cooper.

That, in turn, relates back to Audrey Temple's (Hong Chau) seemingly abrupt elevation from Geist assistant to some position of authority in the first season finale. As for what any of it has to do with James' Walter Cruz? Well, it's not hugely exciting, but it's definitely important enough to the plot of the season that I won't spoil it. I guess.

Spoilers with the new Homecoming season are a difficult thing, because every little detail is a mystery, but none of it is cumulative, relieving viewers of having to sense which answers are gateways to something bigger or more revelatory. Nothing builds. The stranger's name and the melon and how Audrey came to supplant Bobby Cannavale's Colin Belfast are all clear riddles with simple payoffs, all without ambiguity or implication, each roughly equal in narrative value. I was consistently curious for those answers, but only in the most generally mechanical way, learning each truth and acknowledging, "Oh," rather than ever once going, "Wow!"

And even though "Jacqueline" is engaged in the investigation, the show never lets her ingenuity be a driving force. Everything is propelled by when the writers want to set aside their dissimulation. It all feels very rudimentary and thin, especially when the narrative could have become a real and complicated exploration of trauma, identity and the way traditional mental health resources are failing veterans. The whole series is an exercise in taking the potentially significant and rendering it incidental.

Just as whatever rough narrative edges existed in the first season have been sanded down to something smooth and forgettable, almost all of my favorite formal eccentricities have been discarded in the directing transition from Sam Esmail to Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Alvarez has some of the same arsenal of split-screens, bird's-eye overhead shots and audacious zooms and shifts of focus, but film geeks will probably miss the attention-grabbing fun with aspect ratios and the soundtrack of classic film score references, replaced by a workmanlike thriller composition by Emile Mosseri.

I'm sure there are viewers who will be happy to dispense with the aesthetic pretensions of the first season, but I loved the clear amusement Esmail was deriving from inventing a visual space for a talky podcast. This season is almost bizarrely no-frills.

The writing is spare, the directing bland, but at least there's pleasure in watching the actors. Roberts gave an excellent performance in the first season, one that ended up being almost inexplicably under-recognized. Monáe is an interesting non-replacement, a performer of both tremendous presence and deceptive stillness, which works well as her character's disorientation increases.

In her expanded role, Chau continues a tremendous recent TV run that has included HBO's Watchmen and a standout episode of Forever on Amazon. In terms of character complexity, Audrey is the central figure this season, ultimately the only person I wanted to know more about. Cooper makes Geist interesting with almost no supporting dialogue and when he gets to play opposite Joan Cusack as a similarly underwritten military figure, it's like watching Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer pantomiming tennis without a ball. James raises the series' energy when he arrives, but there's no inherent reason why it needed to be this character returning in this capacity.

Homecoming moves along reasonably fast and the last couple episodes, especially the finale, find some momentum that the start of the season lacks — especially if you're trying to remember where the first season ended and what the creators expect you to still care about. Or maybe it's less momentum and more tapering, as the show moves toward fill-in-the-blank answers without suggesting any desire to continue or evolve this story. 

Cast: Janelle Monáe, Hong Chau, Stephan James, Chris Cooper, Joan Cusack
Creators: Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)