The result is a television series that’s frequently breathtaking. Each frame of Homecoming feels meaningful, and most feel at least vaguely familiar. But it’s a curious way to approach telling a story that was first told in podcast form, without any visuals at all. As Homecoming unfurls its mystery through 10 half-hour installments, the stylistic choices can seem more like aesthetic overdecoration than vital components of something fully cohesive. At the end of each episode, the credits play out over scenes that continue to roll, blocking the characters still in shot with names overlaying them in bold type. It starts to feel like a larger metaphor for the show: There’s so much happening that you can’t actually see it clearly.
If this feels like sniping—complaining that a television show is too striking—it’s only because Homecoming is otherwise terrific. It’s a stylish, cinematic mystery that’s unlike anything else on TV, streaming series or otherwise. Esmail (the creator of Mr. Robot) takes what was essentially an old-fashioned radio play about intrigue in the military-industrial complex and turns it into a suspense story that’s both old and entirely new. Not to mention that Homecoming has Roberts, a pharmaceutical-grade movie star, at its center, making her starring television debut with a performance that’s so interior it feels almost intrusive to watch.
When Homecoming debuted as a podcast (written by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, who also wrote the show), it starred Catherine Keener as Heidi, a caseworker, and Oscar Isaac as Walter, a serviceman coming off his third tour. Roberts now plays Heidi, the lead administrator of a program called Homecoming Transitional Support Center, which she tells Walter (Stephan James) is a “safe space” for him to process his military experiences and re-familiarize himself with civilian life. Heidi’s job includes weekly sessions with the Homecoming residents and sporadic phone calls with her boss, Colin (Bobby Cannavale), a buffoonish shark of a corporate middle manager who praises Heidi by saying “fist bump” out loud.
The series jumps back and forth in time between the Homecoming scenes, set in 2018, and scenes set a few years later, when Heidi is working as a waitress at a waterside diner and is visited by Whigham’s investigator, Carrasco. The podcast signaled leaps in chronology with a whooshing kind of jet-engine sound; Esmail employs the same device, but he also renders the future scenes in a square 1-to-1 ratio, making them feel tense and claustrophobic. It hardly seems necessary, because it’s so clear from Roberts’s performance that these two Heidis are totally different. 2018 Heidi is girlish, earnest, motivated, and compulsively organized. Future Heidi is pallid, lifeless, hollow, and claims not to remember anything about her old job. The question of what’s happened to her becomes the show’s defining mystery.