Entertainment » Television

Pop Culturing: 'Homecoming,' Starring Julia Roberts, is Worthy of its Gripping Mystery

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Saturday Nov 10, 2018
Julia Roberts in a scene from "Homecoming."
Julia Roberts in a scene from "Homecoming."   (Source:Amazon Studios)

Some TV shows exist for you to solve. Known as a "mystery box," these programs are designed for audiences to deeply think about and investigate them even after the episode ends. Like a multi-layer whodunit of sorts, fans of these shows gather together online to pour over clues and unravel cleverly crafted mysteries. One of the most successful mystery box shows as of late is HBO's hollow "Westworld," the hyper-violent sci-fi western where you never know who is an actual human, who is a robot or which time line the drama is taking place.

Mystery box shows often trade in character development for plot, positioning the viewer to care more about who may die or what twist is coming next rather than feel any sort of emotional connection to the characters on screen. But "Homecoming," a new conspiracy series coming to Amazon Friday, is a gripping mystery that's smart, honed and packs a powerful emotional punch. It's based off a popular podcast of the same name, created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who wrote the 10 half-hour episodes. What makes "Homecoming" one of the best shows this year, however, is its incredible direction, courtesy of "Mr. Robot" creator Sam Esmail.

With "Mr. Robot," Esmail made one of the best mystery box shows — ever. It's a complex and layered hacker drama that wears its influences on its sleeve. But for every mind-blowing twist that drops, Esmail makes sure you care about the show's characters, casting dynamic performers (Rami Malik, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin) and fully fleshing them out with strong writing. Though he did not pen "Homecoming," he brings that same moving quality to the show and is at the peak of his craft, elevating the hypnotic drama in every possible way.

Julia Roberts and Stephan James in a scene from "Homecoming." Photo credit: Jessica Brooks/Amazon Studios

The cool and minimalistic "Homecoming" is a tense Hitchcockian mystery wrapped inside a Steven Soderbergh thriller. Starring an excellent Julia Roberts (in her first major TV role) as Heidi Bergman, "Homecoming" follows the caseworker as she begins a new job at the privately run Homecoming facility in Florida where she works with military veterans returning from war and transitioning into civilian life. There, she treats Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a warm young man suffering from PTSD and survivor's guilt. Heidi also deals with her micromanaging boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), who never meets her face-to-face and opts to reprimand her over the phone. He seems to be more concerned about gathering data from the vets instead of caring for their wellbeing and often bumps heads with Heidi.

The show also takes place in two time lines. There's the events that happen in 2018, when Heidi is working at Homecoming, and in 2022, where she lives with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and works as a waitress at a ramshackle seafood joint. The 2022, timeline, which changes from full frame and is shot in a claustrophobic 16:9 aspect ratio, mostly focuses on Thomas Carrasco (an excellent Shea Whigham), an auditor at the Department of Defense investigating an incident involving Heidi at the Homecoming facility four years ago.

In many ways, "Homecoming" is similar to the paranoid dystopian world of "Mr. Robot" in both themes and style. Both series feature shadowy corporations with nefarious goals and as "Homecoming" unfolds you'll begin to question character's motivations and the world around them (fans of "Mr. Robot" did the same). Horowitz, Bloomberg and Esmail build a fascinating world; a dizzying mystery worth your time to solve. It may not send you running to the message boards — you can binge watch the entire 5 hour series in one weekend, which is a less interactive way to investigate a mystery box show than spending a week's time with a single episode.

Stephan James in a scene from "Homecoming." Photo credit: Jessica Brooks/Amazon Studios

Nevertheless, "Homecoming" will leave a lasting impression. That's due in part to Horowitz and Bloomberg's ability to craft and weave a mystery with humor and pathos while the excellent cast brings those moments to life. Additionally, Esmail meticulously considers every frame and choice. There are breathtaking shots that turn mundane expositions into thrilling moments — using static-y voiceover and a split screen heighten simple phone conversations between Heidi and Colin. The tension is ramped up in other with overwhelming bird's-eye view shots, making scenes look like they're taking place in a dollhouse. And Esmail carries over his signature "Mr. Robot" style to "Homecoming," often framing actors off-center in shots, giving the series a slightly off-kilter dread.

The sleek "Homecoming" offers both style and substance, resulting in an effective drama that's as dynamic and compelling as "Mr. Robot." The show is a fascinating puzzle that finds each character asking themselves hard-hitting questions about the U.S. government's responsibly with taking care of its veterans' health, broken legal systems, how bureaucracy can hinder our wellbeing, how society treats mental health, and how we process trauma. Viewers may be drawn into the strange world of "Homecoming" but they'll ultimately stick around for the humanity that surrounds it.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled "Pop Culturing." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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