Television’s great movie-star migration is old news ― until now. “Homecoming,” the twisty series that dropped last week on Amazon, doesn’t have some plain ol’ A-lister clawing at the boob tube’s door. We’re talking about the one and only Julia Roberts, the woman who defined a generation of Hollywood and endured the “America’s sweetheart” branding that makes her latest role all the more fascinating. Streaming shows come and go, but Julia is forever.
“Homecoming” has been buzzy right out the gate, partly because of its lead actress and partly because it’s an addictive mystery whose half-hour installments adhere perfectly to the tenets of bingeability. Adapted from Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s fiction podcast of the same name, the series revolves around Heidi Bergman (Roberts), a social worker employed at a shadowy facility that claims to rehabilitate discharged soldiers. Over 10 episodes that fixate largely on her relationship with one key patient (Stephan James), we learn that Heidi’s work isn’t as straightforward or noble as it might seem.
Two HuffPost writers, Matthew Jacobs and Maxwell Strachan, blew through “Homecoming” in quick sittings. Does it live up to the hype? Time to discuss. (Note: We delve into the show’s ending in vague terms, so proceed with caution if you don’t want to know anything at all.
Matthew Jacobs: Maxwell, as of this morning, you’d finished half of “Homecoming.” Then I insisted you finish so we could discuss. Since it’s fresh on your mind, what’s your impression? Can’t stop thinking of Heidi’s fish tank, I bet.
Maxwell Strachan: What is going on with that fish tank! One of many metaphors in this show I feel like I only half-understood at best. I knew nothing about this show going in, except that Julia Roberts was the star. And honestly, I wasn’t expecting all that much. I didn’t really like the name of the show, which didn’t exactly pull me in. But wow, I have to say, I loved it. The combination of romance and semi-realistic sci-fi seemed like it would be a disaster, and for a little while I was worried it would be. But by the final scene, I found myself transfixed and emotional ― maybe because I also found Julia Roberts and Stephan James so captivating. Did it work for you? It does kind of have that “female journalist falls in love with her subject” storyline, replacing a master’s degree in journalism with one in social work.
MJ: For a minute there, it did get hard to tell whether Julia and Stephan were on the cusp of lunging for each other’s lips. Thankfully the show never goes there ― one of the many, many things I adore about it. You’re not wrong about the title, but I don’t think I’ve been so effusive about anything on TV this year. The minute the flash-forward hit in that first episode, I was hooked. Julia looked weathered in a way that we’ve rarely seen, and I immediately needed to know what was making those skies so gray (metaphorically but also literally ― it’s a very gray show). When did you fall in love?
MS: I’m a sucker for anything “Black Mirror”-esque, by which I mean science-fiction storylines that could theoretically come to pass in the real world, so I was interested almost from the second I realized someone from the Department of Defense was snooping around about a sketchy government-affiliated entity. But the moment I went from interested to hooked probably came at the beginning of Episode 2, when the camera zoomed so far in on those canned pineapples dumped on Shrier’s plate. It was so, I don’t know, weird? Especially when combined with the fantastically creepy accompanying music. This show almost forces you to focus on those little details ― the pineapples, the harmonica, the off-kilter pens and aforementioned fish tank. Which of those sorts of things stuck with you most?
MJ: Maybe it was the split-screen walk-and-talks, during which Heidi’s boss (Bobby Cannavale) would bark orders into his Bluetooth headset ― a great excuse to put two close-ups side by side, underscoring Heidi’s befuddlement and Colin’s desperate need to dominate. I also loved the layered staircase that the Department of Defense investigator marches down at the start of Episode 3, when the camera glides downward like something out of “Vertigo.” God bless a half-hour drama, where long takes like that don’t feel indulgent.
The reveal I loved the most came from Walter’s mom (the wonderful Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who discovered that her son’s post-military care was in the hands of the company responsible for manufacturing the cleaning products in her house. Suddenly a labyrinth of corporate greed, phony philanthropy and aching human drama came rushing to the fore. But neither that nor the pineapples could prepare me for the show’s biggest twist: how Heidi’s memory was wiped. I’m terrible at predicting the outcome of anything, but I wasn’t expecting … that.
MS: The show definitely does a good job of avoiding the easy way out, while also resolving what seemed like potentially weak plot points early on (the first example that comes to mind there is the idea that Thomas Carrasco’s boss over at the DOD wouldn’t be interested in him uncovering such an obviously evil plot). But to go back to Heidi, what did you think really drove her before she met Walter? I found her to be such a great character. And if you want to explain the fish thing to me, I wouldn’t exactly be mad.
MJ: All I can think of is Julia Roberts yelling “Eat your fish, eat your fish, eat your fish, eat your fish” in “August: Osage County.” Fish, Maxwell! Is there anything more peaceful than little critters swimming in an intimidating office? Dentists know what they’re doing. If only “Homecoming” did.
You’re right, though. Heidi’s motivations are hard to parse out. Late in the show, during a conversation with her mother (Sissy Spacek), we learn that Heidi had just earned her degree before starting at the Homecoming Initiative. I think the job was a huge moment for her. She was finally successful and able to help people, or at least that’s what she thought she was doing. By the time Walter came along, she was anxious (maybe too anxious?) to develop the sort of bond that I imagine is satisfying for a therapist who sees her work as altruistic. It became her downfall. She put his health above her own in a really complicated way.
In a vague sense, aspects of this show seemed like a less macabre “Sharp Objects,” another series you and I devoured this year. Both have a nonlinear structure, piercing camerawork and a slow-burning mystery. But that show felt languid, where this one is tight and flab-free. What do you make of its half-hour structure? How bingeable was it?
MS: Honestly, thank the lord. It was such a welcome change of pace to make it through an entire season of dramatic television in “only” five-ish hours. If we’re going to enter this era where everyone is OK with television dominating our downtime, they might as well make more shows that don’t require a half-a-day commitment. But a half-hour? Sure, I’ll try it on for size! It also had the added benefit of making it feel like every line, shot and moment mattered here. Which leads me to the natural question about the final moments of the show. Are we supposed to believe she was satisfied with that lone encounter in the coffeeshop? And I’m sorry to keep asking these sort of things, but what is it with him angling the fork? Am I an idiot?
MJ: I love the ambiguity of that callback. Walter once angled a pen on Heidi’s desk the same way he angles that fork in the diner. So he could possibly remember everything about Homecoming after all. Were I her, I wouldn’t be satisfied. I’d be running after him in a panic. But Heidi’s never been a rash or confrontational person, so she has to sit with the (limited) information she’s been given. Or else it’s just a punchier dramatic conclusion.
Did you catch the post-credits scene in the finale? The Marvel-ization of streaming TV, if you will?
MS: I did! Albeit almost accidentally because I was enjoying the Iron & Wine song that randomly finishes out the series. That extra ending is yet another parallel with “Sharper Objects,” I just realized. Why do we think she did that? I did enjoy the Tide 2 Go application.
MJ: Iron & Wine, bringing people together again.
I have an idea what the ending means, beyond creating room for a new thread to guide Season 2. I was hoping you’d tell me. But I suppose we’re not meant to know, or else what fun would that be?
This brings us to our overarching question, the one we’ve more or less already answered: All things considered, would you recommend the series to someone else?
MS: I think we both know the answer there. Julia Roberts does Hitchcockian, “Black Mirror”-esque, modern-day sci-fi. Who wouldn’t like that?
MJ: Agree. She’s fantastic in this show. Her best performance since “Erin Brockovich,” I say. It’s what her career needed ― something other than mom roles and angsty family dramas that don’t quite fit her. When Julia Roberts’ career is surveyed down the line, this will be a big demarcation. Big. Huge!
MS: The one thing I really need to know: What the hell is in those berries?