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Sam Esmail's TV series has a lot going for it, but...
It's important to know that Amazon's new psychological thriller series Homecoming was adapted from a scripted podcast. Remember that all of these telephone calls and hushed conversations used to only exist in audio form, and that's why no matter what director Sam Esmail does to make the show visually compelling -- and he does a lot -- it still feels like something is getting lost in translation.
The story of the podcast and the show are the same: In 2018, a therapist named Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts on the show, in her first-ever TV series lead role) runs an experimental treatment program helping soldiers recover from PTSD. She develops a close relationship with one her clients, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a thoughtful young man with big dreams for his post-military life. But her boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale in full charming sleazeball mode) is more concerned with securing Department of Defense funding than helping the soldiers. Then, a few years in the future, Heidi is working as a waitress at a Florida greasy spoon and dodging questions from a DoD investigator named Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham), who's trying to figure out what happened to Walter Cruz. The search for Walter and the related mystery of how Heidi got from there to here drives the plot.
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It's an interesting story that contains intelligent critiques of the military-industrial complex, but I really wish I hadn't heard the podcast before I watched the show as I almost certainly would enjoy the show more otherwise. Homecoming is very good, but it doesn't convince me that a TV series is a better way to tell the story than as a radio play. Because of the original podcast format, Homecoming's story is told entirely through conversation because the TV series is a direct adaptation. So there's more dialogue than TV usually has, which means that it's very, y'know, talky. It's one thing to listen to a five-minute phone call, and another to watch it. Creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg mostly just copy-pasted their scenes from the podcast to the show, and the dialogue is great, but it didn't get reformatted to play better on-screen. Even though episodes hover around a half-hour long, they drag as if they're closer to an hour.
This is not to say that Sam Esmail, who directs all 10 episodes as he did with his breakout Mr. Robot, doesn't do everything he can to make it pleasurable to watch from a technical standpoint. The individual parts of the show -- the anxiety-provoking score, the sound design that perfectly recreates the tinny sound of a phone call heard over earbuds, the sleek and distinctive production and lighting design -- are all exceptional. The cinematography in particular deserves special praise. Esmail's camera floats all over the set, capturing the scene from unexpected angles. But the show's most striking visual flourish is the aspect ratio change that distinguishes the 2018 scenes from the future scenes. The 2018 scenes are the typical widescreen format, while the future scenes are shot in a vertical rectangle that's slightly wider than a smartphone screen. The vertical rectangle sits in the middle of the screen with black bars on either side of it, as if they're blocking the full picture from view, symbolizing what Heidi can't remember. Esmail used much of the same Mr. Robot crew on Homecoming, like director of photography Tod Campbell and production designer Anastasia White, which was a smart move, because they're all in perfect sync.
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Homecoming shares a lot with Mr. Robot thematically, from a distrust of corporations to a fascination of how memory works, and is sort of like a more self-consciously sophisticated version of that show. It lacks Mr. Robot's gut-twisting crime-thriller urgency, though. In Homecoming, the tension is more sublimated.
The performances are uniformly strong, especially Roberts' slide from idealistic to frazzled, but, again, I would appreciate them more if I hadn't listened to the podcast first, because on the podcast Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, David Schwimmer and the rest are pushed by the limitations of the format into doing some of the best voice acting I've ever heard. You can hear Oscar Isaac's face more clearly than you can see Stephen James'.
There just isn't a template for adapting scripted podcasts to TV yet. There haven't been audio-to-TV adaptations since radio plays like Amos 'n Andy made the jump to TV in the '50s. So kudos to Esmail & co. for trying something that hasn't been done by anyone in about a half-century and mostly pulling it off. If other scripted podcasts get adaptations, this is the bar to clear. And since the show has already been ordered for a second season, there's opportunity for further refinement.
Homecoming premieres Friday, Nov. 2 on Amazon Prime.