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Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts, is simpler than it appears — and a pleasure to watch

Roberts and Stephan James give Amazon’s latest series a beating heart.

Julia Roberts stars in Amazon’s latest series.

As Amazon’s new thriller Homecoming unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that its lofty ambitions are both a curse and a blessing.

The series, which stars Julia Roberts, is built like a puzzle box, weaving a story between the past and the present that often threatens to fall apart under its own weight. Its tropes are well-worn, and its narrative doesn’t go anywhere unexpected.

And yet all these elements miraculously coalesce into a show that is still tremendously emotionally affecting. Ultimately, Homecoming has too many strengths — and is a story too strikingly told — for its flaws to find real purchase.

The title of the series refers to the treatment facility where Roberts’s character, a novice psychologist named Heidi Bergman, works to help transition military veterans back into civilian life — at least in flashbacks. In the present timeline, a few years later, she’s waitressing. When Shea Whigham’s Thomas Carrasco, a Defense Department auditor, comes calling with some questions about her former employer, her new life starts to fragment.

Directed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail and written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, Homecoming is adapted from Horowitz and Bloomberg’s podcast of the same name, which debuted in 2016 and wrapped up last year. The podcast, which starred Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer, was praised for its performances and its use of audio tricks to jump between conversations, whether they be recordings of therapy sessions or phone calls.

Given Homecoming’s origins in the ongoing boom of true crime and mystery podcasts, it is predictably aimed at viewers who harbor a fascination with finding clues. And the show provides plenty of that that thorny detangling process.

But the series is ultimately less concerned with the mystery, which accordingly turns out to be less complicated than its veneer would suggest, and more with the characters working through it.

Homecoming’s cast brings emotional depth to a show that could easily feel paper-thin

Shea Whigham, MVP of every project he’s in.

By virtue of the series’ story, which involves the military and government politics, there are more macro issues at play in addressing how soldiers are treated by the countries they serve. That those points sometimes feel a little glossed over isn’t necessarily excusable, but it’s made understandable, at least, by Homecoming’s obvious intent: The series’ first season (the show was picked up for a two seasons from the jump) is made up of 10 half-hour episodes and hyper-focused on its characters, rather than on building an impenetrably twisty plot.

The show is ultimately something of a two-hander between Roberts and Whigham, as their characters are the ones actively unraveling the thread of exactly what happened at the Homecoming treatment facility. Roberts’s performance intensifies as her character’s confusion grows, crescendoing to a fever pitch — and a sublime visual trick — that will induce gasps even if you can see it coming.

It’s a reminder of why she’s one of the last real movie stars in an entertainment landscape where that label has become increasingly rare, and a major part of why Homecoming lands on its feet.

It also speaks to Whigham’s talent. Despite what could be a thankless role as a government stooge, he more than keeps up with the cogs turning around him. Whigham is one of those actors who enriches every project he turns up in (see: Fargo, Vice Principals, Take Shelter, and Boardwalk Empire, to name just a few) and yet he still seems largely underappreciated. While this role, unshowy as it is, may not be the catalyst for a breakout, he performs it marvelously.

If Roberts and Whigham are the moving parts, then the core around which they orbit is Stephan James, who plays Walter Cruz, one of Heidi’s patients. James is possessed of such innate warmth — there’s a reason he’s also one of the leads of Barry Jenkins’s upcoming film If Beale Street Could Talk — that his rapport with Roberts immediately establishes a centering force for the show, and makes it all the more affecting when it begins to erode.

Taken altogether — along with a turn from Bobby Cannavale that takes full advantage of how domineering Cannavale can be, as well as how unexpectedly tender — these pieces form a whole that’s unshakeable even when the thread of the plot starts to fray.

If you’re paying attention, Homecoming begins to betray its podcast roots

Stephan James’s performance is part of what pushes Homecoming past its flaws.

In its TV iteration, the story’s dual timelines and thematic focus on dual selves mesh well with the kind of meticulous (if sometimes a little too on the nose) imagery that Esmail is known for. In Homecoming, this is especially apparent in his method of distinguishing between the show’s timelines, which borrows from other time-traveling dramas (the recent Korean TV series Signal comes to mind) by switching aspect ratios. The past takes up the whole screen, while the present is presented in a square — a fitting choice considering how so much of the information is obscured from both viewers and Heidi herself.

The two timelines are also filmed in different styles. The past is shot in a way that’s reminiscent of ’70s and ’80s thrillers — and scored that way, too, with some tracks lifted wholesale, from movies like Dressed to Kill. The present, meanwhile, feels more like your usual contemporary drama. Unfortunately, that’s not where the show’s duality ends.

There’s nothing inherently wrong — or even new, at this point— in adapting a podcast into a TV series, as scripted series like Lore and (in a less narrative format) Comedy Bang! Bang! have paved the way. But Homecoming has a bit of a tell when it comes to how it’s jumped between mediums. It clearly has one foot stuck in its original audio-only existence, as the show sometimes struggles to keep its visuals up to speed with its sound and dialogue.

Specifically, there are a few too many phone conversations as Homecoming tries to tie its timelines together, made all the more obvious as voices are altered to make sure we know that characters are speaking on the phone. Though these sorts of conversations and the interesting sound opportunities they offer arguably made the podcast much stronger, they don’t translate smoothly to TV.

This problem is particularly glaring when it comes to Cannavale’s character, Colin Belfast. Colin is Heidi’s boss at Homecoming, and for the first half of the season, he’s almost always on the phone. The scenes, despite their visual component, underline just how important audio still is to the series, and it becomes difficult to avoid the distraction of how hard the story is working to get both voices in a conversation into the same physical place.

In combination with the way that Homecoming’s first season resolves — as tied up with a bow as it possibly can be, in a way that almost betrays how committed the show seems to maintaining an aura of unsolvability — it’s the kind of weakness that would knock the legs out from under any other show.

But Homecoming’s strengths still outweigh any faults that would bring it down; as with the original podcast, the pleasure of Homecoming is in its performances, witnessing great actors do great work. There’s enough emotional depth to the story — and enough pageantry in how it’s told — to hold it all together.

Homecoming premieres November 2 on Amazon Prime.

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