The Gimlet podcast Homecoming is a deft experiment in audio storytelling, a narrative puzzle box constructed out of multiple timelines, heavily fussed-over sound design, and a big-name cast of performers, including Catherine Keener, David Schwimmer, Oscar Isaac, and David Cross. Its pleasures lie mostly in the tease, the little questions and clues it drops about the Homecoming program, a government-adjacent initiative ostensibly intended to help returning soldiers reacclimate to society. It’s plain from the start that something is amiss — that there’s another agenda afoot, and guys behind guys behind guys — but the storytelling strategy is to keep you guessing and keep luring you down the rabbit hole. If you ever find the bottom, maybe you’ll start getting some answers.
It turns out that podcasts like this are quite readily screen-adaptable. Unlike books, there’s no need to get reductive about either the scope of the story or the interior psychology that so stubbornly resists translation. For Homecoming showrunner Sam Esmail, who is best known as the creator of the paranoid techno-thriller series Mr. Robot, the main challenges lay simply in finding the right visual language to sync up with Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast, and in managing a new cast, with Julia Roberts stepping in for Keener, Bobby Cannavale for Schwimmer, and Stephan James for Isaac. So far, the podcast cast has a slight edge, due mainly to Keener’s performance as the flustered Heidi, a caseworker who wants to do right by these soldiers, and to a supremely, delectably dick-ish Schwimmer as the company man who chews her out over the phone. (Between this and his turn as Greenzo , NBC’s power-mad environmental mascot on 30 Rock, Schwimmer clearly excels at playing a jerk.)
The first episode of Amazon’s Homecoming, written by Horowitz and Bloomberg and directed by Esmail, has the same sense of modest proportions as the podcast, establishing the premise and tossing out little breadcrumbs for episodes to come. It’s unusual to see a serious genre series playing out in half-hour, rather than hour-long installments, but there’s a lot to admire here about the sheer economy of expression. Horowitz and Bloomberg carve the story down to its barest essentials and Esmail busies himself with creating a paranoid ambience and tucking in minor visual clues that will presumably pay off later. The show’s visual texture isn’t dissimilar to that of Mr. Robot, really, with the same ominous feeling of a world where nefarious, conspiratorial forces are calling the shots.
As Heidi Bergman, a caseworker at a secret government facility in Tampa, Florida, Roberts’s performance doesn’t have the coarse edges of Keener’s, but she does project a willfulness and a commitment to the job that serves the character well. In “Mandatory,” she’s stepping into an office that’s not hers — the fish tank is soothing but not a design touch she’d have chosen —and executing an official protocol she finds uncomfortable. As she explains to Walter Cruz, the compulsory elements of his time at Homecoming include attending group meals, workshops, and meetings with her, and it embarrasses her a little to have to read off that disclaimer. She and Walter are on the same page: She wants to help him, he wants to be helped. Only their sincere efforts are mediated and will surely be compromised.
Heidi’s supervisor keeps her on edge. It’s almost a shame that Esmail cuts to the face of Cannavale’s Colin Belfast when the podcast achieves so much with his disembodied voice, as he castigates Heidi through dodgy cell phone connections across different time zones. He’s out somewhere doing important things, and his mood is one of perpetual annoyance and aggravation, as he stresses over whatever results he needs to show in order to extract more funding from the appropriations committee.
When Heidi talks about taking a more “holistic” approach to treating men like Walter, Colin blows his stack at that touchy-feely conceit, which runs counter to the data-mining he appears to believe is more essential. We don’t know yet why Colin and the Homecoming program need this information from returning soldiers, but it’s clear enough that treating them isn’t their highest priority.
Meanwhile, the show flashes forward to Heidi as a waitress a few years after the fact, when she’s confronted at the diner she’s working at by an investigator from the Department of Defense, who presses her to rehash her time at Homecoming and the circumstances of her departure. Heidi’s story is that she left to take care of her ailing mother, but she’s evasive on the other questions, like whether her patients were voluntarily committed or whether she knew a man named Walter Cruz.
Esmail films the restaurant, Fat Morgan’s, like it’s some seaside joint at the end of the world — the farthest place Heidi could find, where no one would find her. The episode leaves the investigator standing alone on the pier without a single satisfying answer to any one of his questions. That seems like the right place to leave it.
• As the story unfolds, Esmail keeps leading your eye to unexplained objects and phenomena. Those yellow desk lamps being rolled into the patients’ rooms, for example, have an obvious significance — perhaps they’re surveillance devices.
• What to make of the ominous facility from which Colin is barking orders to Heidi on his cell? There seems to be some sort of clean-up going on, but what exactly is being cleaned up is unclear.
• When Alex Karpovsky’s Craig leads patients through a mock shoe-store job interview, it seems like precisely the sort of exercise that a legitimate program would use to get soldiers ready to return to the working world. And the violent reaction by one of the patients, who recalls a getting an infection from a poorly sized shoe, also reads as a plausible response from a patient who’s experiencing PTSD. But to simulate a shoe store with a projected backdrop suggests an odd set of priorities. Why does a place like this need such sophisticated technology to help veterans?
• The matter-of-factness of the closing credit shot is a nice touch and mirrors the feeling of the podcast, which ends its episodes unemphatically. Both show and podcast are happy to let a mood linger until the story picks up again.