What’s in a memory? On television, they’re often distorted, impressionistic constructions of the human brain. But in “Homecoming,” a superb new drama from Amazon Prime Video, it’s the present that is faint and incomplete, desaturated and boxed in a squarish aspect ratio, while the past is rendered wholly and lucidly, in crisp widescreen.
It’s one of the more inventive ways director Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”) translates the aural tension of the show’s source material — the popular scripted podcast from Gimlet Media — into the year’s most visually striking television. He has also made the very wise decision to keep “Homecoming” roughly as long as its podcast predecessor — at 10 briskly-paced, half-hour episodes, it’s practically designed to be consumed in one long watch.
“Homecoming” and “Mr. Robot” share both a director and similar themes, namely an interest in the fallibility of memory and the extent to which corporations have their claws in all of us. For months, social worker Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts, “Pretty Woman”) worked for Geist, a pharmaceutical company turned defense contractor operating a top-secret civilian re-entry program for veterans. But years later, when a Department of Defense investigator (Shea Whigham, “Boardwalk Empire”) tracks Heidi down with questions about her former job, Heidi can’t quite make sense of what really happened in her time there.
It’s a subdued role that doesn’t give us much of Roberts’s signature show-stopping smile, but she brings plenty of warmth to it nonetheless. And her foray into TV — in line with the addition of Meryl Streep to the “Big Little Lies” cast and Amy Adams’s turn in “Sharp Objects” — confirms that we’re in an age where prestige TV is as attractive a project to Hollywood megastars as big-budget film. Roberts is joined by an excellent supporting cast — Stephan James (“Race”) as Walter Cruz, a Geist test subject (ahem, client) who develops a rapport with Heidi; Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”) as Heidi’s concerned mother; and Bobby Cannavale (“Third Watch”) in the ultimate Cannavalian role, Heidi’s sleazy, fast-talking boss Colin, who’s in line for a promotion at Geist.
The elements that the podcast format requires — simple, character-driven stories and meaningful dialogue — already make for excellent television. What’s left for Esmail to do is what he seems to do best: elevate and augment the storytelling with stylish details and artful camerawork. With “Homecoming,” Esmail solidifies himself as one of the best directors working in television. His style here projects a kind of refined paranoia, evoking Hitchcock in hypnotic staircase shots, trippy zooms and spectacular long takes.
It sounds like a guaranteed recipe for indulgence: big streaming service meets noted TV auteur meets star-studded cast. But “Homecoming” is some of the smarter, more disciplined Amazon fare of late. The half-hour format keeps it compact and tightly written, watchable from the first episode and never a slog. It’s easily a model for what streaming shows could (and should) be: television that makes the most of its creative freedom but keeps itself grounded.