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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Homecoming review: Julia Roberts stuns in mindbending new Amazon show

Homecoming review: Julia Roberts brings movie star charm to her splashy TV debut, the mindbending new Amazon show, helmed by Sam Esmail. Rating: 4/5.

tv Updated: Nov 03, 2018 20:06 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Homecoming review: Julia Roberts’ splashy television debut is a mindbending satire.
Homecoming review: Julia Roberts’ splashy television debut is a mindbending satire.

Cast - Julia Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, Stephan James, Shea Whigham, Alex Karpovsky, Hong Chau, Sissy Spacek
Rating - 4/5 

Martin Scorsese recently said that the reason his ambitious ‘70s-set music industry drama, Vinyl, failed to score a second season - a cancellation that was seen as a shameful admission of defeat by HBO - was because he wasn’t able to direct every episode. You either do every episode or you don’t make the series, he said.

This is simply not a good enough excuse; as anyone who watches TV would know, most shows sustain themselves on a revolving door of directors. In fact, Scorsese’s previous HBO drama, Boardwalk Empire, managed to survive five seasons despite him having directed only the pilot. And as anyone who saw Vinyl would know, poor direction was hardly the reason for its cancellation. But it’s Scorsese. He’s earned a right to say what he wants.

And he’s right, in a way. It has become increasingly common for one person to spearhead entire seasons of prestige television, ensuring a stylistic, tonal and aesthetic uniformity. But it’s hardly the norm. Scorsese in his argument provided examples of Paolo Sorrentino, who left his stamp on The Young Pope, and Baz Luhrmann, whose passion project, The Get Down, was axed by Netflix for reasons similar to why HBO closed the door on Vinyl - a ballooning budget and a dwindling audience.

Watch the Homecoming trailer


The new Amazon original, Homecoming, is perhaps even more ambitious than Scorsese’s Vinyl. It also belongs to the category of shows that are directed, start to finish, by one person. Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail brings his instantly recognisable aesthetic sense to Homecoming, although curiously, despite every frame oozing his singular style, he didn’t create it.

Homecoming is inspired by the popular Gimlet Media podcast of the same name, signalling a soon-to-come boom in programming adapted from the audio medium. Amazon already has Lore on its roster, and soon, we’ll get adaptations of the terrific Serial - Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are in charge - and Dirty John us in production as I write this.

Vinyl’s lead, Bobby Cannavale, delivers a strong supporting performance in Homecoming. He plays the opportunistic man behind the Homecoming programme - a facility that helps combat veterans ease back into civilian life - and he’s usually by himself, at golf courses, birthday parties, in parking lots, barking into an earpiece. But this is Julia Roberts’ show.

There’s a reason why Julia Roberts is one of the last remaining movie stars.
There’s a reason why Julia Roberts is one of the last remaining movie stars.

Roberts is one of the last of a dying breed of movie stars, and she downplays her famously magnificent presence in service of a rather indecipherable character, Heidi Bergman, a psychologist working at the facility. Through conversations inside her immaculately designed office - in fact, the entire show is a fine example of Esmail’s drop-dead gorgeous visuals, his flamboyant camerawork, and the intricacies of his sets - Heidi develops a relationship with a soldier, Walter Cruz. Always a bad idea.

But despite the rather complicated nature of the story - I’ll get to the time-hopping in a bit - there’s hardly a scene that Roberts doesn’t completely own with her charm - she slips gracefully between paranoia, fear, and vulnerability, and peppers her scenes with strategic deployments of that trademark smile.

She finds subtle ways in which to differentiate between the three time periods the show weaves in and out of, and the different phases of Heidi’s life. She’s aided, of course, by Esmail’s very, very blunt methods - he sets each time period apart by using a different aspect ratio; the past is shot in glorious widescreen, the present in a more traditional 16:9 and the future in a claustrophobic 1:1. Danny Boyle achieved a similar effect in his Steve Jobs biopic by using different formats to film three periods in Jobs’ life - 16mm, 35mm and digital.

Sam Esmail makes the best use of the 1:1 ratio since Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.
Sam Esmail makes the best use of the 1:1 ratio since Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.

How everyone ended up where they did is the central mystery that powers Homecoming, through periodic moments of inertia, and when the show becomes distracted by one of the several subplots that it introduces, and then feels obliged to fully explore.

Shea Whigham, a journeyman character actor who seems to be in everything this year, plays a character that is the living embodiment of what the internet likes to call ‘normal core’. A self-described cog in a machine, he has been tasked with getting to the bottom of a mysterious incident that shut down the Homecoming programme four years ago. So he sets about tracking down the individuals involved, and locates Heidi working a lowkey job as a waitress in a seafood joint, trying her best to move on from whatever happened.

We learn, in a moment of tragic clarity, that the paper-pushing Thomas Carrasco (Whigham’s character) isn’t the only one being used by a large corporation to do its bidding. In their own way, each of the show’s central characters is a slave - Walter to a government that sees him as a commodity, Cannavale’s character to money, and Heidi to perils of desperation.

Julia Roberts and Stephan James conduct one of their many interviews in Amazon’s Homecoming.
Julia Roberts and Stephan James conduct one of their many interviews in Amazon’s Homecoming.

Her complicity in the Homecoming programme’s malpractices - they’ve developed a drug that erases soldiers’ traumatic memories, thereby allowing the government to recycle them into war - is a matter of great conflict for her. And it is these mistakes that she feels compelled to correct.

Despite the obvious similarities to the recent Netflix drama Maniac - both shows are the product of singular directorial visions, they’re about memory and the toxic combination of government and private corporations - I was pleasantly reminded of the criminally underseen HBO comedy, Enlightened, starring Laura Dern.

Whether Homecoming is a psychological thriller about the effects of war or a satire about our ineffectiveness as human beings is still unclear. I fear it always will be, but I can, however, get behind the decision to limit episodes to 30 minutes each. Other shows should feel free to jump aboard this bandwagon.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Nov 03, 2018 12:46 IST