An amazing Julia Roberts makes 'Homecoming' best streaming series of the year

Ken Tucker
·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Julia Roberts
Julia Roberts in Homecoming. (Photo: Amazon)

Homecoming is the best new web-television series to come along in a while, a fine way for Julia Roberts to make her debut as a small-screen star. Streaming on Amazon Prime starting Friday, Homecoming is a tense, slightly futuristic drama about the compromises we all make in life, and the extent to which we’re willing to take responsibility for our decisions. Although it’s based on a popular podcast, Homecoming is very much the work of its director, Sam Esmail (creator of Mr. Robot), who does a marvelous job here of creating an atmosphere of anxiety and dread.

Roberts stars as Heidi Bergman, a therapist caseworker at a mysterious Florida company called the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, which helps combat veterans re-acclimate to civilian life. She becomes close to one of the patients, Walter Cruz (Stephan James). She also clashes with her boss, played by Bobby Cannavale, over treatment techniques and, as the show proceeds, other practices at the facility. Homecoming has the framework of a whistleblower drama, but it digs deeply into the psyches not only of its soldier subjects, but also the very differently troubled lives of Heidi and Cannavale’s Colin Belfast.

The action jumps back and forth between 2018 — when we see Heidi conducting therapy sessions with Walter — and 2022, when we see Heidi working as a waitress. What happened during the intervening years? That’s the mystery of Homecoming as it plays out in 10 crisp episodes, none of them much longer than a half-hour. If you’ve watched Mr. Robot, you’ll recognize certain signatures of Esmail’s style. He directed all 10 chapters, and they’re filled with examples of his vertiginous overhead shots, gliding camera work, and blunt closeups. I haven’t listened to the original podcast, which was created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, and starred Catherine Keener, Oscar Issac, and David Schwimmer. But it’s great that Esmail was interested in adapting someone else’s writing, since Homecoming is far less convoluted than big chunks of Mr. Robot have been.

The series is a big showcase for Roberts, and she does not disappoint. Her long face is framed by heavy bangs and long, thick hair that drapes her cheeks — it’s as though Heidi is trying to hide herself. Roberts tamps down the glowing smile and vitality she usually radiates, but she never reduces Heidi to a mere sad-sack victim. It’s wonderful to see her play opposite Cannavale, who gives a frequently spectacular performance as a harried executive who uses lots of glad-handing bluster to disguise the mindset of a man who’s frequently frantic with guilt and desperation. When they share the screen, Roberts and Cannavale give you two distinctly different kinds of energy, and they’re equally matched in force.

The whole production is a beautiful machine, with strong supporting performances. Shea Whigham, probably best known for his work in Boardwalk Empire, is very fine as a beleaguered Department of Defense investigator who knows there’s something fishy about the Homecoming organization, but can’t quite figure it out. Sissy Spacek is excellent as Heidi’s mother, a woman with strong opinions. Spacek and Roberts do a great job of implying a long history of conflict between mother and daughter that the scripts only hint at. It’s also worth mentioning that Homecoming finishes especially strong. At a time when so many long-form TV projects tend to sag in the middle and then peter out, this one reserves some of its best moments — not just its climactic drama, but also its best acting — for its finale.

Homecoming is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

Watch Julia Roberts explain her two very different looks in Homecoming:

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: