The Plot Isn’t the Point on the Star-Studded Experimental-Fiction Podcast Homecoming

Homecoming, Gimlet Media’s experimental-fiction podcast written by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, is a curious artifact. On its face, the project codes as a serious conspiracy thriller, one whose ludicrously star-studded cast list — which includes Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer — suggests some ambition of being a prestige entertainment product, something perhaps comparable to what you’d find on HBO or AMC, except in a podcast feed. But as the show wrapped up its second season last week, all those gestures of grandiosity don’t seem to quite make sense. That’s because Homecoming didn’t quite turn out to be a suspenseful conspiracy thriller at all; instead, it was an absurdist drama of office politics.

To summarize without spoiling: The first season followed a caseworker at a mysterious facility (a captivating Keener) as she attends to an intriguing new patient (Isaac, magnetic), a military veteran of some sort, while dealing with an oddly brusque supervisor (David Schwimmer, pitched at eleven). Amy Sedaris is also featured as Schwimmer’s superior with whom he constantly butts heads, and there’s the occasional David Cross, presumably deployed for comic relief. The narrative game is mostly one of continuous unveiling, pulling back from a pixel to realize a whole picture. By the time this second season rolls around, the plot, such as it were, has been rendered down quite a bit: Essentially, Isaac’s character has gone missing, and he spends the season as Keener, Schwimmer, and Sedaris’s collective MacGuffin. The scope broadens somewhat, and we’re given more characters in the form of Chris Gethard, Spike Jonze, Michael Cera, and Alia Shawkat, most of whom function more as “hey, isn’t that…?” cameos than anything particularly meaningful. There are shifting alliances, power struggles, and deceits upon deceits. As the season gains what passes for momentum, the production takes on the slight manic air of a caper, with various characters individually pushing hard toward the same goal but driven by conflicting motivations. When everything resolves, it’s not quite clear what, exactly, has been achieved, other than that there are winners and losers of dubious degree.

Which is all to say that the plot isn’t quite the point with Homecoming. Indeed, just why anything matters is never fully realized beyond your attachment to simply being around these characters. But, hey, you can get a lot of mileage from mood and texture and charisma alone (see Twin Peaks: The Return), and if you’re looking for a good time piping the voices of Hollywood A-listers into your earballs, Homecoming’s got your back for miles.

Most of the show’s pleasure comes from the opportunity it gives to marinate yourself in Keener, Schwimmer, Sedaris, and Isaac’s performances. Homecoming is, and I don’t mean this uncharitably, essentially a series of intriguing scene work strung together with makeshift narrative threads. The characters are mostly presented in pairs, and the action plays out in a consistent stream of negotiation, transaction, mind games, and verbal combat. (Very rarely are there pure conversations.) Keener matches up with a casual Isaac, effervescent with chemistry. Sedaris squares off with Schwimmer, and later Jonze. Most of the cast gets solid individual moments — even Michael Cera gets a moment to express fiery agita — but it is Schwimmer’s performance that truly stands out. His verbal style, perpetually soaked in a sense of desperation, acutely embodies two intertwining themes that run throughout the show: gaslighting and shitty men. It’s shocking, really, just how potently Schwimmer’s performance evokes the feeling of the consuming political coverage in 2017, in which every rational cell in your brain is being assaulted by the words, actions, and emotions of one man.

Gimlet bills the show as an “experimental-fiction podcast,” and most of that experimentation is funneled through its adventures in linearity and scene reality. The story primarily unfolds through a patchwork of conversations — a mélange of phone calls, therapy recordings, and overheard discussions — that makes voyeurs out of listeners (in somewhat pleasing fashion), and the device strangely works way more than it should. But the narrative presentation also tries to play with time, crisscrossing between multiple temporal points with a disorienting narrative abruptness, and it is here that the show’s impressionistic experimentation proves occasionally insurmountable. The show asks you to do the work and pay close attention to every detail, every uttered line — some of which are hard to discern given the sound design’s emphasis on sonic realism (the production is stacked with ambient sound, ranging widely from a gurgling fish tank to the crackle of poor phone reception). But the gambit ends up drawing attention to the fundamental tension in storytelling that’s meant to be formally transgressive: to what extent are audiences supposed to rise to an occasion, and to what extent should they be guided?

That sense of disorientation is further exacerbated by the creative team’s decision to eschew any guiding narration. The non-narrated format is a technique that you’d almost exclusively find employed among documentary podcasts, most prominently by the history-oriented Radio Diaries and the more aggressively ambitious Love+Radio (which often exploits the non-narration to blur the lines between fact and fiction to powerful effect). But both those shows still had the benefit of relying on the interview format as a key, giving audiences a framework that they’re already familiar with to justify the experience of a nonconventional structure. Homecoming, in contrast, has no such key, seemingly opting to present itself as an enigma whose enigmatism is justification enough. This is slightly less of a problem in this second season, which is decidedly more conventional than the first, but some troublesome stylistic tics are nonetheless held over.

Not that such structural tinkering should be discouraged, of course. The modern audio drama remains way too reliant on skeuomorphism, too tethered to analogs and facsimiles of old radio formats. And so Homecoming should be commended for trying out a few novel additions to the vocabulary of audio drama; if only they had a story, and a plot, worth testing its new inventions. As it stands, Homecoming’s main contribution to the form is the way it attends to the following operational question, one untested until the debut of its first season: Will the quality of an audio drama change when you stock it with performers of an extremely high level? The answer is most definitely yes, wonderfully so.

Homecoming Is a Star-Studded Podcast That Is Short on Plot