Netflix typically has the upper hand on its streaming competitors. Even the highly anticipated October debut of Amazon Prime’s The Romanoffs, the first series from Matthew Weiner since his Golden Age staple Mad Men, was no match for the debut of the much-less-hyped The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. (It helps Hill House’s case that The Romanoffs is an overstuffed, self-indulgent mess, but only up to a point.) Time and again, the preeminent streaming company has flooded the market and overshadowed Amazon’s attempts to win a weekend.
But perhaps Homecoming, which arrived on Friday, could change that. The series has a few crucial things going for it: It boasts a bona fide star as its lead, as Julia Roberts joins the recent wave of movie stars (Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, et al.) transitioning to the small screen for prestige fare; all 10 episodes of Homecoming’s first season are directed by Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot—a show that’s maintained a fervent fan base despite failing to match the peaks of its Golden Globe–winning freshman season; also, the show is based on a popular fiction podcast of the same name that was blessed with the vocal talents of Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, and David Schwimmer. But most promising of all? Homecoming is just really good.
It’s been an abundant TV year for lovers of all things mysterious, from the quasi-futuristic (Maniac) to the surrealist-yet-lackadaisical (Lodge 49), from the comedy-inclined (The Good Place, Forever) to the deliberately, aggravatingly confusing (hello, Westworld and Legion). Homecoming is right up there with the best television mysteries of the year, with everything clicking into place: a perfect match between auteur and material, a gripping mystery that moves at a brisk pace (all episodes are roughly half an hour long), and a deep-rooted paranoia that feels right at home in 2018.
Not convinced yet? Here are the four biggest, spoiler-free reasons Homecoming is one of the best shows of the year, and the must-binge show of the coming weekend.
Sam Esmail Directs
There are few directors in television with an aesthetic as unshakable as Esmail’s. Mr. Robot, the show he created and has directed 25 episodes of—including the entirety of seasons 2 and 3—loves to call attention to itself, particularly with unique shots that place characters in the corner of the frame; the technique is designed to evoke unease and a subtext that Mr. Robot’s hyper-paranoid protagonist is feeling oppressed and overwhelmed by society, capitalism, The Man, etc. Esmail also flexed in directing an episode of Season 3 that was designed to look like one long take, Birdman-style, as characters traversed a corporate building. Was it gimmicky? Definitely. Was it effective and captivating? Holy hell, yes.
Esmail brings this distinct verve to Homecoming, but he’s also pulling from a new bag of tricks. The way Esmail differentiates between scenes that take place in separate timelines is particularly effective. Homecoming’s first timeline, set in 2018, is presented in a normal widescreen format, as case worker Heidi Bergman (Roberts) oversees a transitional center for soldiers suffering from PTSD in Tampa called Homecoming. But the second timeline, four year in the future, when Heidi is waiting tables at a seafood restaurant called Fat Morgan’s, uses a 4:3 aspect ratio that looks a lot more like a square box—something filmed straight from someone’s phone by Steven Soderbergh.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s not just to call attention to the different time periods in an obvious way. You see, Heidi has no recollection of working at Homecoming when she’s approached by Department of Defense worker Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) in 2022—or at least, that’s what she’s telling him. The change in aspect ratio evokes Heidi’s memory, or lack thereof, and her seeming uncertainty. The confined images, and all the black on the edges of the screen, heightens a sense of unease. Something is definitely wrong.
Esmail’s meticulous framing is just one piece of the puzzle; he’s doing a lot of other things well too, and at times Homecoming feels like an extended homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Ultimately, the auteur conjures a ton of tension from a series that depicts, primarily, a lot of people having conversations inside offices and over the phone. (It’s based on a podcast, after all.) That might not sound intense, but when the conversations take a turn for the creepy, Esmail’s timing and framing are impeccable. Overall, the director’s style doesn’t call attention to itself in the same way as Mr. Robot’s does, but if nothing else, Homecoming proves the auteur can adapt to whatever the material requires.
Bobby Cannavale Plays a Sleazeball
I feel bad for Bobby Cannavale. My guy did Emmy-winning guest work on Will & Grace, and had a great season-long arc on Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire. He then got cast as the lead in HBO’s Vinyl, a project produced by Martin friggin’ Scorsese and Mick Jagger, and it seemed his career would be propelled into another stratosphere. But Vinyl was, in short, an absolute mess, and abruptly cancelled—after it already had been renewed for a second season.
While Cannavale has done some solid, versatile work post-Vinyl, he has only intermittently embraced the kind of character he excels at: the sleazeball. In Master of None’s second season, he was Chef Jeff, an over-the-top food personality whose boisterous charisma hid his sinister, sexually inappropriate behavior toward his subordinates. (Cannavale did a great job making you understand what made Jeff so charming, but also disturbing.) Then, in Mr. Robot’s third season, Cannavale was Irving, a used car salesman (the slimiest profession), an aspiring erotica novelist, and a ruthless soldier of the mysterious Whiterose. One minute, this dude was talking about used cars; the next, he was hacking an FBI director to pieces with an ax. He was terrifying, but also … weirdly charismatic.
And boy, oh boy, is he playing a shitty person in Homecoming. Cannavale is Colin Belfast, Heidi’s boss who works at the headquarters of Homecoming’s parent company. Most of his “supervision” boils down to condescending phone calls with Heidi in which he berates her, undermines her worth, and circles back with generic corporate-speak like, “You’re a rockstar!” after mostly ignoring what she’s actually saying. Colin is an extremely punchable character, the perfect representation of that guy on the subway who thinks the louder he shouts over his Bluetooth headphones, the more important he is. As Colin, Cannavale is great, adding just enough layers to the character that by the end of the season you might feel a shred of sympathy for him. He’s just one slimy cog in a corporate conglomerate, after all. The world has many Colins.
Human Connection Over Romance
Homecoming’s central dynamic is the relationship between Heidi and one of the soldiers at the facility, Walter Cruz (Stephan James), and the unexpected bond that forms between them. What’s really refreshing about this thread—aside from the fact something genuine happens at a place that reeks of artificiality—is how Homecoming focuses on the platonic connection between the two of them, rather than suggesting a budding romance. (Roberts and James just radiate off one another, too.)
That’s not to say there isn’t a flirtatious vibe between Heidi and Walter, but it isn’t a will-they, won’t-they type of situation. It’s merely two people who feel profoundly alienated—one of them because he’s returning from a war, which is a tricky transition in and of itself—finding a kindred spirit in one another. In some ways, that’s even more rare—and important.
It brings to mind the approach in Netflix’s Maniac, in which the two leads are simply trying find a connection in [extreme Rihanna voice] a hopeless place. Likewise, their dynamic isn’t portrayed as romantic in nature, yet it isn’t necessarily platonic either—the only apt description is that two potential soulmates come together. As it was in Maniac, this dynamic is refreshing to see in Homecoming, and it goes a long way toward making the series feel surprisingly warm. At least, as warm as a show that mostly takes place in a creepy, mysterious facility with questionable ethics can be.
The Terror of Corporations
This shouldn’t really constitute a spoiler—though just in case you’re super sensitive about these things, look away—but Homecoming doesn’t have any fantastical monsters or dramatic turns toward the supernatural. The narrative is, however, no less horrifying because it feels, well, real.
Homecoming—with the help of Esmail’s direction—plays on the idea that large corporations, ones which are ostensibly set up to help people, are doing questionable, exploitative things behind our backs. You don’t need to look too far into the news cycle to find substantive examples of this. A fictional corporate conglomerate that could be supported by the U.S. government and only claims to have the best interests of soldiers returning from war in mind? That doesn’t sound too implausible.
Sure, Michael Myers walking through a suburb with a knife is terrifying, but in Homecoming’s hands, so are minimalist office spaces with upscale dorm room–type decor, mandatory scheduled group meals, and endless stacks of forms to sign just for a patient to leave through the front door and visit a bar.
Homecoming’s thrills feel contemporary, yet distinct enough to stand apart in the morass of television that’s readily available to binge. And if Amazon needs a show to gain some momentary cultural clout, Homecoming is an excellent bet. It might not boast CGI dragons or jump scares, but it’s an accessible, bingeable puzzle box—exactly the type of show worth devouring over a weekend. I’m about to do it for a second time.