Amazon’s ‘Homecoming’ Stars Julia Roberts in a Thriller Done the Old-Fashioned Way

Amazon’s new series “Homecoming” is an old-fashioned thriller designed for the era of peak TV. It stars Julia Roberts as one of those characters you would see in a film by Brian De Palma or even Alfred Hitchcock. Her memory is a haze of past events, she is hounded by powerful forces and investigators come to her door. Episodes flow back and forth between past and present, showing us what the lead character can’t remember. Creator Sam Esmail, the mind behind “Mr. Robot,” directs this entire first season building suspense through details, cryptic dialogue and visual clues.

Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, who we first meet as a counselor at a privately run facility named Homecoming. It’s an operation meant to help returning veterans reintegrate into society. Among her clients are men like Walter Cruz (Stephan James), who suffers from survivors’ guilt. Bergman’s boss is Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), who is obsessed with collecting data from the veterans for some unknown purpose. The show then cuts to the present, where Bergman is now a waitress at a diner. She seems to be over it all until a Defense Department auditor named Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) shows up investigating a complaint against Homecoming. But wait, Heidi apparently can’t remember ever working there. As she starts retracing her recent past, even contacting an old boyfriend for answers, we go back and see what started happening. A veteran begins questioning the very nature of the facility, Belfast tells Bergman to increase the dosage of some unknown “medicine” in the clients’ food, and soon Bergman finds herself walking into a situation that will cost her dearly.

“Homecoming” works like an old school thriller where reality is constantly questioned and we sense the past holds some unnerving truths. Esmail does something smart and limits each episode to no more than 33 minutes. Recently many shows have suffered from bloated seasons where every episode is an hour-long slog, some pushing it to nearly feature length. For something both cerebral and dependent on mystery, it’s fitting to keep each chapter at a short length. The story isn’t too stretched out and we get just enough to keep us coming back. Esmail also goes for a more classic, cinematic look, abandoning the neon, techno sheen of “Mr. Robot.” He uses tracking shots in a De Palma style and even switches screen ratios. The past events at Homecoming are depicted in a widescreen format now typical for television, while the present is shown in a boxed in format with black bars on the sides of the screen. This nicely distinguishes the vastness of the strange facility, and then captures how reduced and claustrophobic Bergman’s life becomes. When Belfast calls Bergman Esmail likes to split the screen, and the dialogue is all processed through the hazy, electronic tone of a real phone call. The music score is purely orchestral, setting an atmosphere reminiscent of classic Hitchcock.

It was almost inevitable that Julia Roberts would eventually fall into the orbit of peak television. She still has her trademark charisma, a mix of down to earth and poised. With “Homecoming” she carries the entire season with her mix of stubbornness and confusion. In the past when she works with the veterans she’s a workaholic, ignoring her boyfriend and taking Belfast’s calls night and day (even as he himself celebrates his kid’s birthday). In the present Roberts’s Bergman is now a shell of her former self, suddenly realizing there are passages in her memory that are missing. We’re reminded of her roles in thrillers like “The Pelican Brief” and “Sleeping with the Enemy,” where she could wonderfully convey strength and despair. Shea Whigham would be wearing a fedora if this was set in the 1950s, although he does have a trench coat. He digs through files, finds astonishing clues about what might have happened to Bergman and of course is doubted by his superiors.

Revealing too much of the plot in “Homecoming” ruins the effect, but it is one of those eerie tales in the tradition of “The Manchurian Candidate,” where something nefarious is being done to these veterans, possibly in the name of science and commerce. As Bergman gets closer to the truth the pace picks up and we’re gripped. Whenever someone in power says they want “data” and to increase the amount of medication in someone’s food the results are never positive. There are some great, paranoid moments like when Cruz and another soldier run away from the Homecoming grounds, convinced they must be in some secret location. They find what appears to be an artificial town, but it’s actually a retirement community. “Homecoming” enjoys teasing the audience that way, making us believe we know what’s about to be discovered, then pulling the rug.

Wisely paced and structured, “Homecoming” is an engaging thriller delivered with a classic style. You can process it in adequate doses because Esmail wants to tell a good story and knows bloated episodes dent the effect. But the real heart of the show is Roberts, who proves she’s still ever so likeable, but can also guide us into darker territory.

Homecoming” season one premieres Nov. 2 on Amazon.