Stylistically, “Homecoming” is miraculous. The entire Amazon series is directed by Sam Esmail, the guy who turned “Mr. Robot” into a dark, twisted night of the soul, and he has delivered a visual and audio wonder. It looks by turns like a chilly corporate maze of aquarium-like rooms and a road movie tinged with Hitchcockian intrigue. The aspect ratio shifts with a pattern — boxy for the present, rectangular for the past — that ultimately becomes revelatory, and the two sides of the many split-screen phone calls are dynamically synchronized.
And throughout, the show sounds like an old radio play, with every glass clink and bird chirp registering front and center, with slightly overdone melodramatic music surging here and there, all a nod to its origins as a Gimlet Media scripted podcast.
There is no “but” here, no “that said” turn in my opinion. The extraordinary look and sound of “Homecoming” perfectly serve its mysterious, menacing, and ultimately satisfying plot, as it toggles between 2018 and 2022, which is the present tense of the show. The fragility and the power of memory, the amorality of big business, the scope of military ambition — these and other themes are expressed synchronously through Esmail’s wrought atmosphere and the script, which is by podcast creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. The format of “Homecoming,” with its precisely arranged shots, beautifully matches the content, as the 10 half-hour episodes of the drama fly by.
Have I not yet mentioned that the show, available Friday, stars Julia Roberts in her first regular TV role? She is excellent — mostly reserved, but a faceted reserve that is fueled by fear and fury. At one point, a character tells her, “You’re always halfway somewhere else,” and that characterizes her detached affect perfectly.
Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a counselor in 2018 at a place called Homecoming, which is an experimental initiative in Florida created to help soldiers readjust to life back in the States. She talks to freshly returned men, in particular Walter Cruz (Stephan James), encouraging them to recall their most painful memories from their tours. She is at her happiest when she is trying to help. She reports her information to her off-site boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), who coaches her by phone. Since he’s played by Cannavale, entertainment’s best bully, the anxious Colin is up in Heidi’s grill even when he’s far away. Why is he so obsessively micromanaging Heidi’s work?
In 2022, Heidi is a waitress at a diner called Fat Morgan’s who is living with her mother, Ellen (Sissy Spacek). She’s no longer at Homecoming, and she’s evasive on the topic. What happened? Enter Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), a Department of Defense investigator who is looking into Homecoming. He tracks down Heidi, and he proceeds to unpack what happened — for himself, and for viewers, who get vital tidbits of information at all the right intervals across the season. Just when you might become frustrated with all the vagueness of the mystery and the hints of conspiracy, the writers deliver a solid step forward. It helps enormously that the episodes are a half-hour long, undoing any potential for ponderousness.
It’s a pleasure to see Roberts stretch her legs on TV, particularly in her scenes opposite James, where her heart is most evident. The two clearly have a strong chemistry, one that is not necessarily romantic, and they are surrounded by a fine supporting cast. Marianne Jean-Baptiste, despite some accent issues, is hard-hitting as Walter’s mother, and Alex Karpovsky is just right as a Homecoming staffer who lacks Heidi’s humanity. Dermot Mulroney brings on the pathos as Heidi’s frustrated boyfriend, and Jeremy Allen White (Lip on “Shameless”) is potent as a rogue Homecoming client. And throughout, Whigham is the perfect guide — downtrodden, perhaps, but dogged. As the camerawork carefully frames all of them, zooming in here, looking down there, you sometimes feel as if you’re watching the story through his resolute eyes.
Starring: Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James, Shea Whigham, Sissy Spacek, Alex Karpovsky, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Frankie Shaw, Sydney Poitier-Heartsong, Jeremy Allen White, Dermot Mulroney, Hong Chau
On: Amazon, season one available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.