Ever since the podcast Serial by Sarah Koenig in 2014 was so successful and was such a phenomenon, podcasts and people who make them have entered the mainstream. Serial was so successful and the rise of podcasts was increasing exponentially that Alex Blumberg started his own podcast company. Companies like Earwolf, SModcast, Afterbuzz TV and Nerdist had already seen success in the podcast arena, so Blumberg created Gimlet Media. In November 2016, Gimlet released a program called Homecoming, written by Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, starring Oscar-nominee Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and Emmy-nominee David Schwimmer. The following month, NBCUniversal bought the rights to adapt the podcast into a TV series. The adaptation was written and directed by Emmy-nominee Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot).
Esmail’s Mr. Robot is about a computer hacker in New York. One might think that Esmail’s previous series would have nothing to do with this current series, which is about a social worker and counselor working with military veterans in Florida. However, there is an undercurrent in both shows that does feel the same. In each of Esmail’s shows, there is an undeniable corporation that feels like the embodiment of evil or at least the embodiment of American capitalism at its worse, meaning the kind of capitalism that abuses vulnerable people or people in need. In Mr. Robot, that corporation was simply called E Corp, which was a bit on the nose. Here, the evil corporation is called the Geist Group. Each series features a person on the inside or at least near the center of the evil corporation who tries to take down the corporation or at least undermine it in some way. Instead of a man who’s paranoid and delusional, this series has a female protagonist whose compassion gets the better of her.
Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich and Pretty Woman) stars as Heidi Bergman, the aforementioned counselor who works at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a facility out in the middle of nowhere in Florida. The facility brings military veterans there where they live in dormitory style rooms and work with counselors like Heidi to help them learn skills to get them back to civilian life. The other counselors will do group sessions with the men, whereas Heidi does one-on-one sessions. She’s not a doctor, but her sessions make it seem like she’s a therapist. She’s not putting on an act. She does care about these men and genuinely wants to help them.
Stephan James (Shots Fired and Race) co-stars as Walter Cruz, one of the soldiers who signed up to be at this facility. Of all the men there, he’s the only soldier whose one-on-one sessions we see. Like a lot of veterans, he suffers from PTSD, stemming from an incident where one of his fellow soldiers was killed in action. He blames himself and feels partly responsible. Those feelings extend to the soldiers who are here at the facility as well. He seems well-adjusted. He plays practical jokes, but underneath lies some unrest and unease. His only family appears to be his mother, played by Oscar-nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies and Without a Trace) who is worried about him, as he’s cut off from her in this facility.
The series is built as a mystery, a mystery that is at first a visual mystery. We see Heidi at the facility doing her normal work and the scenes are filmed in the usual, 16:9 aspect ratio for HD television. However, we then cut to scenes that have been reduced to an aspect ratio of 1:1 or a perfect square. Those square scenes show Heidi not at the facility but working as a waitress at some crummy diner. Those square scenes seem to take place in the future because Heidi is approached by an auditor working for the Department of Defense who asks her about her job at Homecoming. She says she doesn’t remember.
Shea Whigham (Fargo and Boardwalk Empire) plays Thomas Carrasco, the auditor from the Defense Department. He received an anonymous complaint that men were being held against their will at Homecoming and other abuses might be occurring there. He starts to investigate and it leads him to Heidi who’s now a waitress. He suspects that she’s lying about not remembering. It’s later that he discovers that Walter has gone missing since Heidi left the facility. He suspects that something is being covered up, but he’s not a cop or have police powers like a FBI agent would, so there’s only so much he can do. Yet, he’s determined to learn the truth.
Esmail does a great job of toggling back-and-forth between the full HD scenes and the perfect square scenes. What he brilliantly achieves by the end of the series is to show that the aspect ratio difference isn’t just a matter of differences in time, either past or present, but it’s also something else related to time that isn’t what one might expect. It’s a very clever trick that Esmail utilizes and is in fact stunning when the truth of it is revealed.
Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire and Will & Grace) also co-stars as Colin Belfast, an executive at Geist Group. He’s the face of the evil corporation. He has no compassion for anybody, let alone the soldiers. All he cares about is getting results for the company and making money or amassing power. At first, he comes across as a frustrated manager who is a stickler for protocol and not mixing emotions in what’s revealed as a science experiment, which might not be evil. He simply has a very stern approach. Cannavale’s performance in certain moments do infuse Colin with some sense of humanity, but the centerpiece of his performance are his phone calls with Heidi, which are abrupt and the height of condescending.
Those phone conversations are tantamount to verbal abuse against Heidi but there is a dark humor to it. Essentially, those conversations are almost verbatim to what was in the podcast, but Esmail provides good cinematography and production design to enhance the dialogue in equally funny and engaging ways. The chemistry between Roberts and Cannavale is equally funny and engaging, as well as nothing short of amazing. The chemistry between Roberts and James, which constitutes a significant part of this story is also nothing short of amazing. The series has already been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and three Critics Choice Awards. I wouldn’t be surprised and in fact hope that it’s remembered come next year’s Emmy Awards as well.
Running Time: 30 mins. / 10 eps.
Available on Amazon Prime.