Homecoming 1x01 "Mandatory" & 1x02 "Pineapple" Review
A few years ago, my dad sent me a link to a scripted podcast called Homecoming, insisting that I had to listen to this ground-breaking, experimental narrative. The premise is a counselor, Heidi Bergman, unpacking her experience at a rehabilitation center for recent veterans, preparing them for civilian life and making sure they are socially adjusting. Heidi makes a special connection with her patient, Walter Cruz, and a wildly convoluted, intriguing, and jaw-dropping mystery ensues, all through auditory storytelling.
What makes the podcast work is the background and natural sound and committed performances from Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaac, Amy Sedaris, and Alia Shawkat. The whole thing unfolds like an intimate, classified file that you aren’t sure you are supposed to be listening to. When a TV show based on Homecoming was announced with an entirely new cast, I held my breath to see if everything I loved from the auditory experience would transfer to my favorite visual medium of television.
Flashbacks: Welcome to Homecoming
The first two episodes are a promising start. The first episode is written by both creators of the original podcast, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, and the second is taken by Horowitz alone. Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot, directs all ten episodes. The show and the podcast open the same way, the natural noises of a fish tank establishing Heidi’s counseling office. While the fish tank that opens the podcast comes across as gentle white noise, a background to the very first conversation between Heidi and Walter, the opening shot of the fish tank in the TV show is a languorous bubbling. Heidi (Julia Roberts) and Walter (Stephan James) get acquainted, and Heidi tells Walter that the only mandatory things required of him during his time at Homecoming are their counseling sessions and that Walter must eat at the cafeteria. She also requests a vocal agreement that Walter is here at Homecoming voluntarily, and not coerced. While the dialogue is mostly transcribed from the podcast, Julia Roberts and Stephan James bring different angles to their characters. Julia Roberts has a warmer, approachable therapist smile as opposed to Catherine Keener’s dry vocal fry, and Stephan James has an easy charm juxtaposed to Oscar Isaac’s careful and shell-shocked persona.
The podcast takes total advantage of the audio medium, exclusively using background noise and audio quality to establish setting; the show takes the visual in unexpected ways. During Heidi’s first phone call with her boss, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale, in a role he was born to play), rather than showing both Heidi and Colin, Esmail takes the opportunity to show the Homecoming facility in full. The camera follows Heidi and other characters as they walk around the set, filling out the imaginations of longtime listeners and newcomers alike. While there’s something awkward and stitled about not seeing Colin for a bulk of the phone conversation, the long takes build the world. When we finally see Colin, however, it feels like the true beginning of the narrative’s mystery. It’s not clear where he is, but it’s messy, covered in strange spray paint markings, and people in protective clothing are hosing down tables. It contrasts the sleekness of the facility while emphasizing the shadiness of Colin.
There are also other advantages to this version of the story, like getting to see a fight between Walter and a character named Rainey, since it was only alluded to in the podcast. It’s an incident that prompts Heidi to suggest that Walter get a roommate, to hopefully help him adjust better. He’s paired with a paranoid comrade named Schrier. At the beginning of episode 1x02, “Pineapple”, Schrier suggests that Homecoming is more of a sham than they are letting on, and asks Walter questions that seem unhinged. They claim they are in Florida, but how do they know for sure? Does Walter remember how he got to the facility? It all seems preposterous, but it leaves Walter rattled. Unsatisfied with Walter’s response, Schrier gets upset enough that he grabs the attention of the entire cafeteria, by assaulting another patient and yelling questions at others.
This instigates another phone call with Colin Belfast. Heidi has many ideas on how to improve the program, to gain a holistic view of their progress, but Colin shoots down every single one. He insists that Walter and Schrier are separated at the cafeteria. He’s worried that if Schrier’s erratic behavior continues, it could mess with their end goals. Which begs the question — what is Homecoming’s end goal? If it’s truly to monitor the mental health of veterans and helping them re-adjust to civilian life, surely this would not be the response to such a distressed patient. Is the Homecoming initiative really about reentry, or is about something else?
Flash-forwards: A Visitor at Fat Morgan’s
The other component to Homecoming’s story are flash-forwards, sprinkled throughout the narrative. For some reason, Heidi is no longer a counselor and is working as a waitress at a diner called Fat Morgan’s. She’s confronted by Thomas Carrasco, of the Department of Defense, who has some questions for her about the Homecoming initiative. Unfortunately for Carrasco, answers are not going to come easily. Heidi is dodgy and short with him. She claims she’s working at Fat Morgan’s because her mom got hurt, so she had to come to take care of her, and that she doesn’t remember a Walter Cruz. Carrasco follows the trail to Walter Cruz’s mother, Gloria, who he calls on the phone. When he presses her about Homecoming, Gloria doesn’t take the bait, but the name Heidi Bergman obviously rings a bell. When Heidi’s recounts her experience with the stranger visitor to her mother, Ellen (Sissy Spacek), Ellen reminds her that Heidi never said why she quit her job and came home, and that Ellen got hurt two months after Heidi had returned. Did Heidi lie to Carrasco, or did she really get the timeline wrong?
I was determined to give Stephan James a chance, even though I knew I was going to miss Oscar Isaac as Walter. James wins me over with the “Titantic Rising” monologue, a funny story from his time in the army that has a sad ending. He’s an effortless storyteller, and I’m hopeful about his chemistry with Julia Roberts.
To those who know what’s going on here, there are some obvious clues in the first couple episodes. I’m curious if they are going to make any tweaks to the final answer, since the show has a few more episodes than the podcast does.
This facility is so swanky. That is certainly not your high school’s cafeteria.
This is when I admit that I’ve never seen My Best Friend’s Wedding (my mom just gasped), so the reunion between Julia Roberts and Dermot Mulroney wasn’t as meaningful for me, but I’m interested in Mulroney playing Anthony. David Cross plays him exasperated and desperate, because listeners mostly experience him through increasingly agitated voicemails, but Mulroney’s Anthony seems to be more of a sympathetic and sincere partner.
If my favorite character, Becky, is not in the TV version of this story, me and Horowitz/ Bloomberg are going to have WORDS.
Is it weird that I love the macho patient Rainey is played by the skeezy manager from A Star Is Born?