IT WAS always going to take some truly amazing TV to drag Julia Roberts away from the silver screen. That series is this new streaming show.
IT WAS always going to take something truly special to drag Julia Roberts to TV.
She’s a movie star, the kind of movie star that commanded $20 million to show up to set. And now, like so many of her illustrious silver screen compatriots, here she is, flocking to TV where there’s five hours to nail down character development
Homecoming, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, is a paranoid conspiracy thriller, breathtakingly crafted by series director Sam Esmail (creator of Mr Robot) over 10 episodes.
You can see why Roberts chose this project to make her regular TV debut — it’s so accomplished.
Based on a fictional scripted podcast series by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, who served as executive producers and writers on the Amazon show, it’s a puzzling story that will make you question what anyone and everyone is up to, constantly.
Heidi Bergman (Roberts) is a counsellor at a facility called Homecoming, ostensibly a private contractor transition program for soldiers returning from war, helping them to reintegrate into civilian life.
The war vets, including Walter Cruz (Stephan James), have sessions with Heidi, talking about their memories from the battlefront, as well as “life skills” role-playing — like how to interview for a job at a shoe store.
Heidi and Walter form a bond, chatting about road trips they wished they had taken.
But, as par for the course for any decent psychological thriller, what’s on the surface is not the whole story.
Four years later, Heidi is working as a waitress at a rundown diner and living with her mother Ellen (Sissy Spacek) in her hometown, sleepwalking through her life until a man named Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) shows up asking questions.
Carrasco is a Department of Defence apparatchik — he calls himself a “cog” — tasked with investigating a complaint against Homecoming — he knows Heidi is the key to understanding what really happened.
The mystery in Homecoming unfolds over two timelines — in 2018 and 2022 — and they’re easily distinguished by how Esmail has framed them. The 2018 timeline is shot in traditional widescreen format while the 2022 timeline is framed in a box format, the latter’s restricted view emblematic of Heidi being in the dark on her own past actions.
Esmail is known for his stylised aesthetic and his frames are layered with geometrical shapes — many of Homecoming’s rooms are octagonal, as are objects like wall sconces or tables — and symmetrical shots. There is so much detail in every frame, it’s like a visual smorgasboard for you to greedily lap up.
He also often shoots from a bird’s eye, looking down on rooms as if the characters are rats in a cardboard maze, someone’s cruel experiment.
There’s something unnerving about the deliberateness of Esmail’s framing, and like Mr Robot, he often shoots his subjects in the last third of the frame, looking off-camera, rather than in the first third.
Its uncomfortable and its unnaturalness makes you alert to what’s obscured.
Taking their tonal cues, and actual samples of scores, from Alfred Hitchcock films, especially Vertigo, Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Carrie and other classic psychological thrillers, Homecoming is a tense viewing experience.
Roberts’ first proper foray into TV is also proof she should do more — she brings a gravitas to her performance and to the show. Similarly, her talented cast, including James, Cannavale and Whigham are perfectly cast in their roles. And, really, whenever Sissy Spacek shows up anywhere, you just want to keep watching her. Spacek’s role is small but her presence in any scene is undeniable.
In Mr Robot, Esmail explored themes of corporate malfeasance, control and conspiracy, plus our surveillance culture, and there’s a lot of the same DNA running through Homecoming.
It all makes for some paranoid, chilling television — a series you’ll definitely want to experience.