A decade ago, news that Julia Roberts was starring in a TV show on a streaming video service would have sent industry observers clucking with speculation that her career was on the skids. Today, it’s hard to imagine the Oscar-winning actor doing anything as interesting and ambitious as “Homecoming” anywhere else.
The psychological thriller, which premiered on Prime Video earlier this month, is based on the podcast of the same name. Creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz get a big assist from “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail, who directs all 10 episodes of the first season. Esmail’s deliberative, Hitchockian aesthetic is in full effect here, with a story that is right in his corporate paranoia wheelhouse.
“Homecoming” is a similarly paranoid examination of how corporations mislead and mistreat people. In a drab office park outside Tampa, Fla., the Geist Group has opened Homecoming, a private facility contracted by the Department of Defense to help veterans transition back into civilian life through an intensive, experimental multi-week treatment plan that includes counseling, roleplaying and medication.
Episodes, which are around 30 minutes each, are a marvel of effective and economic storytelling. They move quickly yet manage to feel unhurried. Esmail fills the breathing room he’s created with omniscient overhead shots, slow tracking shots and long takes that infuse banal corporate spaces with an unsettling malevolence.
Roberts delivers a fantastic, layered performance as caseworker Heidi Bergman. Reserved and tightly wound with a chilly demeanor, Heidi is initially proud of her new gig in which she helps vets target and process traumatic memories. However, she soon comes to question Homecoming’s methods during her sessions with Walter Cruz.
Walter, played by Stephan James, is a genial young vet whom Heidi befriends over the course of his time at Homecoming. The scenes between Heidi and Walter are moments of genuine humanity within a system that regards such connections as a breach of protocol. The nature of their relationship, which alternately feels both platonic and romantic, is satisfyingly left for interpretation.
Less ambiguous is Heidi’s growing sense that Homecoming doesn’t have its clients’ best interests in mind. Her misgivings are downplayed by supervisor Colin Belfast (Bobby Canavale), a gaslighting, fast-talking corporate climber who manages the project from afar via phone.
If Heidi has fooled herself into thinking she’s doing good work, Colin harbors no such delusions. Homecoming is his ticket up the ladder; if it succeeds, he succeeds. However, we ultimately learn that even a big shot like Colin is just another cog in a machine that values profit over ethics.
At the heart of the show is the mystery of what exactly happened at Homecoming. The story unfolds across two timelines — one in the present, in Homecoming’s early days; the other several years in the future, where nearly all traces of the facility have vanished.
In that future Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a DOD auditor tasked with investigating Homecoming, tracks down Heidi, now a waitress with no memory of her time at the facility. Carrasco, in his short-sleeve button-down shirt and glasses, is a great unassuming hero — a bureaucrat who’s own moral compass compels him to keep digging for the truth,even when his superiors demand he drop the case.
The future scenes are shot with nearly half the screen cropped by black bars. The resulting frame is a claustrophobic representation of Heidi’s missing memories. The past is not simply just out of frame, it’s entirely absent to her. The explanation of how this happened, as well as Homecoming’s true objectives, is disturbing not only for its inhumanity, but also for its plausibility. It’s not difficult to conceive how a military industrial complex left unchecked and the privatization of veterans’ care could one day yield something as disturbing as Homecoming.
“Homecoming” is an audacious and intriguing first foray into prestige TV for Roberts. Esmail, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the most innovative and interesting minds working in television today. Clocking in at a brisk and addictive four hours, this is a thrilling series that’s ready-made for a winter-weather binge.