Despite sharing the same basic principles, television is a curiously different beast than cinema; the difference between is subtle but important. Cinema is projected on a big screen, while television is displayed in a living room. Cinema overwhelms you. Television is intimate. Cinema, on the whole, gets in and out. Movies over three hours long are not unheard of, but they’re rare; cinema’s made to be experienced in a neutral space with other strangers in the dark. After enough time, such an experience begins to test your patience. On the other hand, because television is made to unfold in the comfort of your home, it has more room to meander a little bit. It still has to feel experiential, or like it’s otherwise going somewhere—something that’s easier to mess up than you might think—but there’s room to stretch if the storytellers know how to use it.
Nobody understands this better than Sam Esmail. Esmail was a small-time indie film director who was writing a feature script and realized he could extend his main story over multiple hours while telling several other stories within the universe he created. Esmail managed to sell Mr. Robot to Universal and shortly thereafter found himself on a very short, very prestigious list of game-changers that helped to evolve our understanding of what television is capable of.
Homecoming is his victory lap, and boy does it look impressive on paper: His lead is Julia Roberts in her first ever role on television, backed up by a killer mix of veteran character actors (Bobby Cannavale, Shea Whigham, Sissy Spacek) and exciting relative newcomers (Stephan James, Alex Karpovsky, Hong Chau). Esmail didn’t create the show; it was adapted from a popular podcast written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who serve as head writers and co-executive producers here. However, he does direct every episode, and the themes he plays with here—memory, paranoia, a healthy distrust of capitalist institutions—will feel familiar to fans of Mr. Robot. It seems like it’d be pretty hard to mess up, and sure enough, Esmail and company deliver. Still, I didn’t expect a thriller this complex, this focused, this emotional.
Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a therapist who works at Homecoming, a sort of halfway house purporting to ease the transition to civilian life for soldiers coming back from war. When the show picks up, she’s in her first meeting with Walter Cruz (James), a charming, self-aware soldier who’s ready to do the work and get back to his old life. There’s an immediate bond between the two, and it seems that in any normal situation, Heidi would be perfectly positioned to help him face his demons. But this is not a normal situation: Homecoming is a privately owned venture from the Geist Emergent Group, overseen by Colin Belfast (Cannavale). Heidi wants to help people like Walter. Colin only seems interested in “data,” and since he’s representing a big corporation, we know that can’t mean anything good. That much appears confirmed four years later when we find Heidi working as a waitress in a run-down local diner, living with her mother (Spacek), and dodging questions from a Department of Defense investigator (Whigham) looking into a complaint filed against Homecoming about a soldier being kept in the program against his will.
First thing’s first: Roberts came to play. Resisting the urge to coast on her movie-star charms, the Oscar-winning actress delivers a nuanced portrayal of a quietly complicated woman who got in deeper than she could reasonably comprehend and is just trying like hell to keep moving. It’s her best performance in years, maybe even the best in her entire CV.
Interestingly enough, Esmail’s influence on this performance can be felt in the context of Homecoming‘s whole ensemble. The writer-director is known for his idiosyncratic compositions that put his actors in the corners of his frames rather than front and center (more on the visual aspect of Homecoming in a bit), but he doesn’t get a lot of credit for just how strong people seem to perform on his watch, or how he can use the look or baggage of an actor to manipulate an audience’s expectations. In session, Heidi radiates a familiar confidence and charm that makes it clear why people would open up to her. It’s easy to want someone like her in your corner if you were dealing with post-traumatic stress. Yet outside her office, in her 2022 scenes, there’s a fragility and naivete to Heidi that Roberts plays with astonishing precision. Every decision she makes, be it reasoned or reckless, is easy to understand and connect with…and Heidi, you’ll learn, can be very, very reckless.
Esmail deploys the rest of his cast in a similar way. Bobby Cannavale seems to be playing the kind of slick, antagonistic creep he’s done so well in the past, but there’s a deeply pathetic figure underneath his bluster that Esmail and Cannavale do a dynamite job of illustrating for the discerning viewer. Meanwhile, if you know Hong Chau from her solid-to-strong supporting work in Tremé, Inherent Vice, and Big Little Lies, you may be wondering what the hell she’s doing in a nothing role like Colin’s secretary. You might even be waiting for a twist. When that twist apparently comes, it seems to be exactly what you might have expected…until it suddenly isn’t. You think. Maybe.
On the other end of the spectrum, Shea Whigham, who might be best known for playing loudmouth tough guys, turns in a dialed-down performance as DOD Investigator Thomas Carrasco, a man in a job that sounds more exciting than it actually is. He’s a bureaucrat, a nobody; the guy they send in before they send in the guys who may or may not matter. It’s a thankless job—Whigham wears the mileage all over his paunchy, clumsy body—but Carrasco takes it ever-so-seriously; in the few moments where he knows he’s onto a big lead, you can see that tough guy come out a little bit, and it’s enthralling to watch.
Esmail shamelessly plays this expectations game with the viewer, but there’s enough substance behind it to make it feel fun and suspenseful instead of twisty for its own sake. Same goes for the other tricks he pulls as the series unfolds; in the past, his visual style has often been critiqued as calling too much attention to itself, taking the viewer out of the story. Though he eases up on some of the more extreme habits of Mr. Robot, there’s still plenty of ammunition for those who aren’t fans. You could almost call it cheeky: Instead of hiring a composer, Esmail opts to drop in pieces of score from other classic thrillers that make the series feel more like a pastiche than its own thing. That music will suddenly cut off without warning, creating jarring, sometimes even comical deflations of tension. And like most serialized dramas, particularly those that drop all their episodes of a season at once, each episode ends with a powerful revelation or twist…but then the camera will linger on a peaceful shot as the credits play, creating a sense that this massive thing happened and yet, life goes on unabated. All of this should theoretically hinder whatever atmosphere Esmail is trying to build; instead, it adds so much, especially in tandem with the work done by his usual collaborators, particularly director of photography Tod Campbell and production designer Anastasia White.
Then there’s the big choice Esmail makes: framing the 2018 scenes in TV standard 16:9 and the 2022 scenes in 4:3 (a choice influenced by Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, according to Esmail). Obviously, there’s a method to the madness; the question is, does that madness distract from the story being told? Personally, I thought it felt a bit showy; it’s hard not to when constantly switching between a ratio that takes up your whole screen and another that puts large black boxes on either side. Still, the method is made clear during a late-season episode in a single shot that I physically felt, one that made me stand up and holler. Distracting? Maybe. But absolutely worth it.
It ultimately comes down to the scripts written and/or supervised by Horowitz and Bloomberg. Given some distance, some of the reveals of the mystery are a little out there, but that barely seems to matter. It’s wonderfully paced, parceled out over ten tightly focused half-hour episodes, each one giving you plenty to digest before moving on to the next. The season as a whole feels nicely contained, giving you just enough of a tease for the already-ordered second season without the experience feeling incomplete.
And boy does it work on an emotional level. I’ve yet to mention Stephan James’ performance; he’s the big, beating heart of this show, and his outstanding chemistry with Roberts allows Homecoming to hit heights that you wouldn’t think a paranoid psychological thriller could reach. It speaks volumes that the last episode of the show deals less in dramatic revelations (though it still has one or two) and more in the resonating effects of everything the characters have learned from their experiences; that the show doesn’t end on a bombshell cliffhanger (though there is an important scene after the credits of the last episode) but on singer/songwriter Iron & Wine quietly, emotionally pleading for the viewer to “Remember me.” Characters matter here, and there’s a sense that Esmail, Horowitz, and Bloomberg have empathy for even the most broken among them.
If this was a movie of any length, be it two, three, or even five hours, Homecoming wouldn’t work as effectively. It’s a powerful demonstration of everything television does best, and it demands to be experienced for yourself.
Watch the trailer here:
All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Created & Produced by Eli Horowitz & Micah Bloomberg, based on their podcast
Producing Director: Sam Esmail (all episodes)
Executive Producers: Chad Hamilton, Julia Roberts, Alex Blumberg, Matt Lieber, Chris Gilibert
Starring Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James, Shea Whigham, Alex Karpovsky, Sissy Spacek
Release Date: November 2, 2018
10 episodes, approx. 30 mins. each