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Television

Review: ‘Homecoming’ Season 2 misuses Janelle Monáe and Hong Chau. Stick it out at your peril

Janelle Monáe in a scene from “Homecoming.”
Janelle Monáe in a scene from “Homecoming.”
(Amazon Studios)

Confusion is central to the twisting plot of “Homecoming” when the psychological thriller returns to Amazon Prime on Friday, but at least two things are clear through all the gaslighting: Season 1 is much better in hindsight, and Season 2 has problems standing on its own.

The seven-episode drama opens on a mystery woman (played by Janelle Monáe) waking inside a small boat on a rural lake with no clue who she is or how she got there. Her disorientation is amplified by eerie Hitchcockian staging and music. The answers are tucked inside the next six episodes and, of course, a big reveal that should probably feel bigger.

The problem is that her journey, and the show’s other “new” riddles and subplots, seem designed to drive viewers back to the central story of last season. Things feel mechanical rather than risky and clandestine, serviceable rather than seductive. But such shortfalls may not be a problem for all viewers. Fans of last season might welcome an addendum to the mind-bending mystery they consumed in 2018, even if it’s just to remind them why the show was so good in the first place.

Disoriented characters and clandestine corporate malfeasance were also the building blocks of Season 1, but the talent of star Julia Roberts and the strong direction of “Mr. Robot’s” Sam Esmail made the complex and paranoid narrative pop — at least in dramatic terms. In the story, which was culled from a popular podcast, Roberts played the coordinator of a rehab program for vets suffering from PTSD. Stephan James played a former soldier in treatment at the facility, which was owned by a shady “wellness” company and military contractor, the Geist corporation. It was secretly administering a memory-erasing drug on the center’s patients, and it eventually weaponized the substance against those who discovered they were using humans as test subjects. Then the FBI stepped in...

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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.

Stephan James and Monáe in a scene from “Homecoming.”
Stephan James and Monáe in a scene from “Homecoming.”
(Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios)

Esmail and Roberts are back for Season 2, but only as co-producers. Now the series, which was created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, is directed by executive producer Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“13 Reasons Why”).

The story now: Geist has learned its lesson and is supposedly just making soap and other benign products for the home. But c’mon, what’s really being pumped out of its essential oils infuser?

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Monáe’s character is an enigma: Is she a military vet, a junkie, an attorney, or maybe none of those things? Unraveling her identity is the game, so explaining anything more is a virtual minefield of spoilers. Suffice it to say that there are multiple hairpin turns in her story, yet through it all the character doesn’t grow much. She’s used more as a device to transport viewers through a labyrinth of covert actions and reactions.

Returning characters include human guinea pig Walter (played by James) and Geist receptionist-turned-leader Audrey Temple (Hong Chau). She usurped the job from the obnoxious Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale) after he was implicated in the rehab scandal. Chau has a more substantial narrative to work with than Monáe, partly because her journey is rooted in Season 1, which was better at balancing character and story development.

“Westworld,” HBO’s divisive sci-fi drama, can confuse even the most astute viewer. But what if the frustration that causes is exactly the point?

Hong Chau with Chris Cooper in Season 2 of “Homecoming.”
Hong Chau with Chris Cooper in Season 2 of “Homecoming.”
(Ali Goldstein/Amazon)
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Still, it’s frustrating to watch Audrey, who connived her way to the top, wring her hands like an unsure novice every time she faces the slightest of challenges. Perhaps it’s part of a larger ploy, but there’s not enough subtlety in the writing or performances to make her meekness feel like an intriguing layer of subterfuge.

Newcomers to the series include the company’s eccentric founder, Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper), and the military figure who challenges his business, the bulldozing Francine Bunda (Joan Cusack). Both add a bit of warmth and dark humor to this serious affair, dramatizing another facet of the timely issue of science versus state.

“Homecoming” episodes are short, clocking in at 30 minutes each, yet patience is still required. Or at least focus. Don’t watch while tired. Fans of the previous season may find themselves dedicated to sticking this one out, but this reviewer would have not hung in there if it weren’t her job to do so. It’s a forgettable follow-up, no memory-erasing drugs required.


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