In American television, an experimental facility is almost always a sign of impending doom. So when Amazon Studios’ Homecoming opens with a congenial Julia Roberts welcoming an ex-soldier to a support centre that helps military personnel readjust to civilian life, it is immediately clear that beneath the surface of the swanky set-up lurk unknown horrors and profit motives.
The 10-episode first season was released on Prime Video on November 2. The psychological thriller follows Heidi Bergman (Roberts), a former caseworker at the defunct Homecoming Transitional Facility who now works as a waitress at a run-down diner. When an investigator from the Department of Defence (Shea Whigham) starts looking into an old complaint about the facility, it is revealed that Heidi left her old job under mysterious circumstances and has lost all memory of her time there. The non-linear narrative also follows Heidi during her time as a counsellor at Homecoming and shows how her growing attachment to one of the inmates, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), makes it tougher for her to ignore the individual consequences of what is done under the pretext of the greater good.
Homecoming is based on Gimlet Media’s 2016 star-studded podcast of the same name, whose A-list voice cast included Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaac and Amy Sedaris. Co-starring Bobby Cannavale as Heidi’s ruthless boss, Colin, and Sissy Spacek as Heidi’s mother, Homecoming has been directed by Sam Esmail (Mr Robot). The podcast’s creators, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, serve as co-writers and executive producers.
By retaining the original team behind the podcast, Homecoming ensures that it honours its source material even as it takes the story to a wider audience and mounts it on a grander scale. At the same time, the makers manage to improve upon the podcast, by making initially small and then increasingly significant departures even as they keep the broader story intact and retain much of the dialogue.
This is done by better etching out the characters, adding details, amplifying the suspense and building upon the drama to impress upon viewers the gravity of what’s at stake. The show adds a punch that was missing from the podcast, which otherwise was a triumph in other ways, especially in how it managed to craft a riveting audio story in a multi-media world.
Roberts also makes Heidi completely her own, adding layers and a pathos to her character (which was excellently portrayed in the podcast by Keener) and portraying her as both a victim and a driver of her circumstances.
The show justifies the decision to add a visual dimension to an already well-told story, using eerily long shots and playing with perspective and aspect ratio to add a layer of dread to the narrative. The podcast’s strength was its innovative use of sound to create a non-linear narrative that flits between time and space. In the audio department too, Homecoming the series takes the story to newer realms, liberally using classic movie soundtracks that are right out of an Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller.