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'Homecoming' review: Julia Roberts' series-TV debut is a winner

Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman in "Homecoming."

Julia Roberts as Heidi Bergman in "Homecoming."  Credit: Amazon Prime Video

SERIES "Homecoming"

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts, in her first TV series) is a caseworker at Florida-based "Homecoming," a re-entry facility for soldiers returning from combat in the Middle East. There she counsels vets like Walter Cruz (Stephan James, "Race"). There's something strange about this facility, which is seeking funding from the Department of Defense but is owned by a mysterious conglomerate named the Geist Emergent Group — for a quickie TV comparison, think "Breaking Bad's" nefarious Madrigal Electromotive. Heidi's boss is fast-talking con man Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), who wants results from Heidi that he can peddle to the DOD. All of this is in flashback. In present time, Heidi has left the job and remembers nothing of her five months at Geist. That's not much help to an auditor with the DOD's inspector general, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham,"Boardwalk Empire"), who's looking into improprieties at the Geist facility.

This 10-parter — each episode is just over half an hour — is adapted from the popular podcast of the same name, and directed by Sam Esmail of "Mr. Robot." A second season has already been ordered. 

MY SAY Think of this first season of "Homecoming" as a five-hour movie. The guy who wrote this review saw roughly half — sorry, but deadlines are a bummer. In the case of "Homecoming," they're a little more of a bummer because "Homecoming" has that rare quality of submersion: You dive into the deep end of this pool and struggle to make it back to the surface, not because you have to (although in my case I did) but because you can't.

That's obviously good, also occasionally frustrating because "Homecoming" can be parsimonious with information. Like any decent serial podcast, which "Homecoming" obviously was, the process of watching is like peeling an onion, one layer of skin at a time. In fact, "Homecoming" might have worked just as well as a two-and-a-half-hour movie.

At least Esmail has done a masterful job of keeping this onion peel of a show on track. A thin veneer of normalcy covers a thick blanket of paranoia that sits atop ... what? The promise of that "what" keeps this in a fluid, dynamic motion.

So do a pair of outside influences. With the themes of memory loss and paranoia, Hitchcock's "Vertigo" comes to mind, and there is a touch of that here. But Steven Soderbergh seems the more profound influence.

Indeed, Soderbergian touches abound and you'll know them when you see them — the distant tracking shot that puts you outside a scene looking in; or the lingering closeup; or the abrupt drop into a scene in which you have absolutely no idea what's going on; or the carrying of audio over from one scene to the next so that you're still emotionally stuck in the previous one. These tricks keep the viewer in a state of unbalance — or vertigo, if you will — which contributes to the menace that crowds every scene.

Then, there's Roberts, who is superb (and always is). Her character, Heidi, is (just like you) on the outside looking in, at least in the present time scenes, as she attempts to puzzle her way through pieces of information that make no sense whatsoever. And because we know her in present time and in flashback, we also know her as two entirely separate people. One of them is possibly devious, or even deviant, the other deeply human and sympathetic.

James is fabulous as the military vet and puppet on a string. Cannavale is as Cannavale does: a whirlwind of voice, motion and full-on blarney. Whigham's Carrasco is, in a sense, the proxy for the rest of us. He's deeply puzzled but must find out what's going on here. You know he will. He has to.

BOTTOM LINE A must-watch winner.  

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