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Review: In 'Homecoming,' a Julia Roberts acting question and the dark fun of data-mining tyranny

Review: In 'Homecoming,' a Julia Roberts acting question and the dark fun of data-mining tyranny
Stephan James plays a returning veteran and Julia Roberts his counselor in a scene from the new Amazon Prime series "Homecoming." (Jessica Brooks / Amazon Prime Video)

Julia Roberts, a movie star, makes her series television debut Friday in "Homecoming," a new Amazon Prime show that began life in 2016 as a podcast — what would have once been called a radio serial and still can be if we care to define radio with the expansiveness we now apply to television.

Written in each case by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, it has been developed for television by Sam Esmail, the creator and director of "Mr. Robot," with which it shares certain philosophical concerns. And like that show, it's dark, but in its way also fun — which is not necessarily to say funny — without straining to be, and suggests human feelings surviving beneath the shellac of too-modern life..

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Roberts, taking over from the podcast's Catherine Keener, plays Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a new-ish, Florida-based operation seemingly dedicated to helping returning veterans reintegrate into civilian life. Some of them may be more than usually troubled.

At times, confusingly, Heidi seems to be responsible for more than counseling, if we are to trust the many complaints of her perpetually absent and demanding boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale). As in the podcast, he speaks to her only by phone, from a variety of distracting locations — a sketchy Third World backroom that screams Drugs Made Here; a golf course; his daughter's birthday party.

Shea Whigham is a government investigator digging into the past in "Homecoming," a new Amazon Prime series based on a popular podcast.
Shea Whigham is a government investigator digging into the past in "Homecoming," a new Amazon Prime series based on a popular podcast. (Hilary B Gayle /A mazon Prime Video)

Among Heidi’s clients — her only client as far as we're concerned — is Walter Cruz (Stephan James, taking over from the podcast's Oscar Isaacs), who is more than invested in his recovery, and would seem to be well adjusted, were it not that he has bad dreams. They bond — each in their way is carrying a weight — but her desire to go an extra step to help him is out of joint with the strict experimental aims of Homecoming: Data is being gathered. Data-gathering — the great enterprise and undermining of our age.

The show jumps back and forth in time to a parallel track, set a few years in the future. Heidi is working as a waitress at a middling waterside cafe, still in Florida, not too far from her former place of employment, and living with her mother (the great Sissy Spacek, on a late-career tear that has also included “Castle Rock,” “Bloodline” and opposite Robert Redford in “The Old Man & the Gun.”). One day an agent from the Department of Defense (Shea Whigham, affable, not menacing, nor masking menace with affability) materializes at one of her tables with questions about her 2018 life — a life she claims to remember only vaguely. Tying these timelines together and filling in the gaps between them is the business of the show, and of some of the people in it.

Interestingly, the future scenes have the more antique look, rendered in a square format as opposed to the widescreen present day, with a bleached palette, possibly to reflect Heidi’s apparent diminishment. They are no less dramatically effective for occupying less room on the screen.

The podcast’s first season offered a story-with-a-twist that might comfortably have been compressed into the space of a single episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents" — a likely venue for such a story, if this were the early 1960s. But expansion is what’s on order here. And though Esmail has said that the series, whose second season has already been confirmed, will strike off in new directions, the four episodes (of 10) available for review do closely model the podcast, nevertheless, while adding new characters, enlarging old ones and turning action the podcast only described into actual action.

The suspense is cinematic, even as the screen version remains, like a radio show, conversational. In many, maybe most scenes, one person is interrogating another. So many questions! So few answers!

Like “Mr. Robot” — and “Legion” and “Maniac,” two other recent tales of institutional overreach and wobbly consciousness, to isolate a small trend — “Homecoming” is something to look at, as much as to watch. Esmail's stylistic tics are immediately recognizable: actors crowded to the edge of the frame, looking off; formal, frontal compositions; creeping camera moves that seem to reflect aesthetic interests of an android; sudden musical cues cutting across the action — the soundtrack here is built from the soundtracks of 20th century film thrillers — or the absence of music where one would expect it.

The stylishness wars with the material for a while. Indeed, the series seems abstract and dreamlike at first, in a way that makes the “reality” of what we’re seeing doubtful and the performances — intentionally or incidentally — feel artificial and stiff. ("Is Julia Roberts a good actress?" I asked myself as the previous decades of her career blurred momentarily in my mind.)

But the show grows warmer with detail and behavior, even as the style stays chilly. Julia Roberts is a good actress, one remembers, and she’s surrounded by rooted, delicate performances from (among others) James, Spacek, Whigham, Alex Karpovsky as a counselor and Jeremy Allen White as a member of Cruz's old unit who suspects that all at the honeycombed Homecoming Transitional Support Center is not what it seems. Well, when is it ever?

‘Homecoming’

Where: Amazon Prime

When: Any time, starting Friday

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