We’ve seen many types of adaptations over the course of film history. However, an adaptation of a popular podcast seems like new territory. Creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg adapted their popular “Homecoming” podcast series into a new Amazon Prime show starring none other than Julia Roberts. To say this is a big jump would be an understatement. Luckily, the risk pays off. “Homecoming” lights up the screen as a TV series and provides a quick, thrilling binge.
Like the podcast, “Homecoming” refers to a facility that specializes in reintegrating veterans into the normal world. This involves therapy sessions, interactive trainings on day-to-day activities like shoe shopping and extremely regimented activities. Heidi Bergman (Roberts) functions as a caseworker, reviewing the performance of the veteran subjects to present to her overbearing boss, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). She lobbies hard to keep Walter Cruz (Stephan James) in the program, following an unfortunate mishap. She believes he stands a chance at doing well under the program’s training. However, a much later timeline shows Heidi haunted and confused by Homecoming. What really goes on in that institution? Was her role helping or hurting the veterans in her care?
These essential questions elevate “Homecoming” above the boilerplate military thriller. Sure, the show keeps us on the edge of our seat as we piece together the mission of the Homecoming facility. Yet, the series uses Heidi to great effect as a morality test for the audience. How was she complicit in the actions of the company? Was she right or wrong in her decisions? We answer these interesting morality questions along with Heidi, who seems to have blocked off some of the more damning elements of her job. Horowitz and Bloomberg have managed to keep the interesting thematic elements of their podcast intact through the process of this adaptation.
Julia Roberts delivers one of her career best performances as Heidi Bergman. The show jumps between two timelines with very different versions of Heidi. One finds her as a cool, calm and collected caseworker within the Homecoming facility. The other re-introduces her as a small town waitress who seems cagey when asked questions about Homecoming. This signals a great new direction Roberts’ career can go. She knows how to take her megawatt smile and star charisma to draw an audience in and make them let their guard down. From there, she pulls you into a richer, more complicated and murky moral quandary. This speaks to both fantastic casting and great collaboration between director Sam Esmail and Roberts.
The rest of the supporting cast is universally fantastic as well. Stephan James proves to be a strong scene partner for Roberts as Walter Cruz, the military vet at the center of the story. We see the potential for his character to adapt to the real world following combat and sincerely wish the best for him.
This more nuanced turn balances other more scenery chewing supporting performances. Bobby Cannavale speaks almost entirely mid scream as Colin Belfast, Heidi’s supervisor. It’s a lot of fun to watch him curse and get frustrated amidst a series of amusing backdrops, such as a child’s birthday party. Marianne Jean-Baptiste provides a strong emotional center as Gloria, Walter’s mom. She conveys a wealth of strength and determination as she goes up against the Homecoming facility. She’s not the only mother giving a strong turn here. Sissy Spacek reminds us that she’s still at the top of her game as she plays Ellen, Heidi’s mother. Spacek balances working class sass with real maternal care so well. One almost wishes for a “Terms of Endearment” like mother-daughter movie between Roberts and Spacek. They play so well off each other.
“Homecoming” perfectly captures the visual possibility podcast adaptations can achieve. Especially early on, many of the sessions use almost the exact language from the podcast. However, the show builds out a complete facility that brings the story to life in ways listening to a podcast couldn’t. However, one of director Esmail’s greatest decisions was to play with aspect ratios between timelines to great dramatic effect. A central revelation exploits this stylistic technique to its fullest potential. Esmail knows how to use visual language to bring to life this story that elevates the podcast.