Television

Julia Roberts Anchors Hitchcockian Mystery Homecoming

Based on a podcast, Amazon Prime series a suspenseful tale about memory gaps.

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'Homecoming'
'Homecoming,' Amazon Prime

Homecoming. Available beginning Friday, Nov. 2, from Amazon Prime.

In the first scene of Amazon Prime's new drama Homecoming, Julia Roberts' character, Heidi Bergman, is a smartly appointed senior social worker in an upscale rehabilitation center for veterans being treated for PTSD. In the second, she's a no-nonsense waitress in a beach-town greasy spoon.

What happened during the four years in between is both the whodunnit and the whattheydone of Homecoming, an elegant suspense tale in which memory and identity are both the heroes and the villains.

Adapted from the podcast of the same name written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, Homecoming was written and directed by Sam Esmail, the auteur of USA's Mr. Robot, and it shares that show's moodiness and techno-paranoia (though, happily, not its aimless, meandering story-telling).

Esmail has skillfully reworked the wordy podcast scripts, which, lacking any visual element, had to tell Homecoming's story in discursive, nearly endless speeches by the characters. Instead, he's adorned the show in various Hitchcockian trappings—particularly dim, obliquely angled photography. Even in the moments when nothing obviously ominous is happening on the screen, Homecoming has a disquieting urgency to it.

There are, in fact, a lot of those moments. Homecoming unfolds slowly, working forward from 2018 and backward from 2022 to discover what happened in between, and aside from the undeniable truth that Heidi's career has somehow plunged off a cliff, there at first no obvious problems.

Heidi herself seems a generally sympathetic counselor to the men in the facility where she works, but her private life is full of disarray. Her boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) accuses her, with some justice, of turning her back on everything but her job.

And her boss (Bobby Cannavale) is a corporate tool who turns her very attempt at talk about therapy to discussion of profitability, punctuate by odd non-sequitors: "Did we run the background check on the busboys?" Their most frequent clash is over her belief that the vets' PTSD can best be overcome by helping them face their fears; the boss thinks that the whole point of treatment is to help them forget.

The soldier-patients are an unremarkable lot, a bunch of enlisted men mostly who take their pills and shut up, interested only in doing what they have to get their discharge papers and move on with their lives. One, during a skit about how to do job interviews, is asked to cite some skills he learned in the army that would help him work in a shoe store. "It was a fuckin' desert," he patiently explains. "There weren't any shoe stores."

There are exceptions, though. Shrier (Jeremy Allen White of Showtime's Shameless) is profoundly suspicious that the whole facility is some kind of trick—though played by whom, and for what purpose, eludes him. Yet he remains disdainful when his model-soldier buddy Cruz (Stephan James, Shots Fired) tells him that the place is designed to help them. "When's the last time anybody gave a fuck about you?" Shrier demands.

These seem little more than the workaday problems of any mental health facility. How they would have resulted in Heidi abandoning her job to sling hash to grubby fishermen is abundantly clear—and the plot turns from mystifying to faintly sinister when, four years later, a Defense Department bureaucrat (Shea Whigham, Fargo) turns up at her diner, asking about an unresolved complaint of an abduction from the facility. Disconcertingly, Heidi lies to him; even more disconcertingly, she doesn't seem to know she's lying. A huge chunk of her life has gone missing.

Roberts (startlingly deglamorized by a dowdy wig and prim costumes) offers a winning performance as woman with dawning realization of the gaping chasms in her memory. So does James, illuminated by wistful hopes that rehab will help him reconnect to a civilian world that seems to exist only in shimmering memory. Their characters' appeal is shadowed by the terrified declaration of their friend Shrier: "We're defective." Unfortunately, that's the best-case scenario.

Updated to correct when the show will become available to watch.

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