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Mystery Thriller 'Homecoming' Delivers A Healthy Dose Of Suspicion And Paranoia


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Today on Amazon Prime Video, the streaming service presents a 10-part drama series starring Julia Roberts. It's called "Homecoming." It's a mystery thriller told in present and future timelines. It's directed by the creator of the cult TV show "Mr. Robot," and it's based on a scripted podcast - all of which, to me, is fascinating. "Homecoming" began two years ago as an audio drama, a multipart podcast produced by Gimlet Media and created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. It was about a case worker named Heidi Bergman who was conducting a number of therapy sessions with Walter Cruz, a soldier returning from Afghanistan. For the podcast, Heidi was played by Catherine Keener and Walter by Oscar Isaac - two very good actors who gave very strong performances.


CATHERINE KEENER: (As Heidi Bergman) Today's April 10, 2017, at 9:03 am - speaking with Homecoming client Walter Cruz. This is week one, session one. I'm Heidi Bergman, ID 101078. We're in my office at the facility - OK, Walter Cruz.

BIANCULLI: "Homecoming" starts out like a military-themed version of the HBO series "In Treatment" - one patient, one therapist and a lot of back and forth slowly revealing dialogue. But very quickly, it turns into something else - a conspiracy drama overdosed with suspicion and paranoia where almost nothing can be taken for granted. The therapy sessions take place in the present. But there's also a timeline set a few years in the future, when a Department of Defense investigator is looking into Heidi's role at the homecoming medical facility and finding many more questions than answers.

This is why Sam Esmail got interested in adapting this podcast for television. As the creator of "Mr. Robot," paranoia and shifting realities and untrustworthy narrators are his specialties. He's cast Julia Roberts in her first major TV series lead as Heidi and Stephan James as Heidi's patient Walter Cruz. Esmail ups the general sense of insecurity by using a music score with intentional echoes of several skittish, nervous movies from the '70s - "Klute," "The Parallax View," "All the President's Men."

And for TV, Esmail differentiates the two timelines, the therapy sessions and the investigation, by a very simple but clever method. They're presented in different screen ratios. The flashback sequences are shown in widescreen. And the investigative sequences, in which Shea Whigham from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" plays the persistent government agent, are shown in a centered, easily differentiated, square frame. The agent finds Heidi years after her time at Homecoming working as a waitress in a Florida diner - and very confused by his questions about her previous job.


SHEA WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) What were your duties there?

JULIA ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) I was a counselor. I told you.

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) And what did that involve?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) I worked with soldiers - their mental health. Honestly, I don't remember much about it. OK, I was - it wasn't a good fit for me. Are we done?

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) Ms. Bergman, I'm simply trying to get some basic information about the program. It's not my intention to agitate.

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) I'm not agitated.

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) Can you tell me if your clients were there on a voluntary basis or...

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) I don't know.

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) You don't know?

ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) Do you have a badge? Do you have some kind of identification?

WHIGHAM: (As Thomas Carrasco) I have business card.

BIANCULLI: Other major contributors to the Amazon TV version of "Homecoming" include Bobby Cannavale, playing Heidi's boss at the mysterious company, Sissy Spacek as her mom and Jeremy Allen White, from Showtime's "Shameless," as Shrier, a member of Walter's company also undergoing therapy at the Florida facility. At lunch with Walter, Shrier confides that he questions everything about this place called Homecoming - even that it's located in Florida. Walter, on the other hand, believes what he's told and what he sees - at least at first.


STEPHAN JAMES: (As Walter Cruz) There's palm trees in Florida.

JEREMY ALLEN WHITE: (As Shrier) Yeah, there's palm trees in Florida. There's also palm trees in California and Cuba and probably - I don't know - the Philippines - right? - Lebanon.

JAMES: (As Walter Cruz) What are you trying to say, man?

WHITE: (As Shrier) Nothing, I'm just - I'm just saying - all right, I'm pointing out that the only reason we think we're in Florida is because that's what they told us, right? I mean, that's the only reason we have to believe that.

JAMES: (As Walter Cruz) If we're not in Florida, where are we?

WHITE: (As Shrier) I don't know, right? That's my whole point. See. Why would they hide that from us?

JAMES: (As Walter Cruz) Or they're not hiding it. You're wrong, and we are in Florida.

WHITE: (As Shrier) Oh, because I'm usually wrong when I feel like a situation could potentially be fucked up?

JAMES: (As Walter Cruz) No, you're not.

WHITE: (As Shrier) Because I've never lied to us before?

BIANCULLI: On TV, as in the podcast, the mysteries and conspiracies escalate episode by episode. Most of the installments are 30 minutes or less, which is unusual for a drama. So "Homecoming" moves at a crisp pace - even when so many of its scenes are two people talking. And the more Heidi's two worlds collide, the better Julia Roberts is at reflecting that confusion. I binged all 10 episodes of Amazon's "Homecoming," and was pulled in all the way. And I have to say I enjoyed the artistic way Esmail, who directs every episode, adapts the audio podcast for a visual medium. It reminds me of the earliest days of television when people working in that brand-new medium took existing radio dramas and comedies and either recast or redesigned them while making them more visual. In both cases, it starts with words on the page and depends on the people directing and starring in it. "Homecoming" delivers on all counts.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, we talk with religion scholar Elaine Pagels about her new book "Why Religion?: A Personal Story." It combines memoir and biblical scholarship and reflects on how she turned to ancient Jewish and Christian texts and the meditation she was taught by Trappist monks after the deaths of her young son and her husband 30 years ago. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.