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Found in translation: Homecoming hits its stride in television

The podcast “Homecoming” opens mysteriously. A discordant tune plays muffled on the piano, followed by the entrance of the voices of the two protagonists of the show, therapist Heidi Bergman and army veteran, Walter Cruz. The television show of the same name follows the podcast’s opening scene almost exactly, even paraphrasing the opening dialogue about a fish tank in Bergman’s office. But the television show almost immediately runs into a problem the podcast wholly avoided: how much information is too much.

“Homecoming” is a noir thriller based on the podcast of the same name. The podcast and the show center around Bergman’s struggle to regain her memory of her time at the Homecoming facility, where she acted as a therapist to army veterans in an experimental and unethical drug trial.

The podcast was created by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg in 2016, and the television adaptation, starring Julia Roberts, was released to Amazon Prime on Nov. 1, 2018.

The show is directed by Sam Esmail, who is most known for his role as the creator, executive producer and head writer of the T.V. series and technological thriller “Mr. Robot,” which gained critical acclaim when it was first released in 2015. Homecoming is reminiscent of “Mr. Robot,” which also contained anti-corporate themes and terse, but meaningful, dialogue.

Esmail’s experience in T.V. thrillers is a clear influence on the show, which takes the noir theme of the podcast to new heights. The show utilizes longer takes, contrasting the trend of fast paced television and film most often seen today, emphasizing the classic noir feel of the series.

Bergman’s therapy sessions with Cruz often include long scenes of Cruz speaking, rather than cutting between the two. This camerawork pulls the attention on Cruz and his experiences during the war, which become crucial in later episodes as he struggles to recall them. It makes the scene feel more important but also builds the sense of anticipation for the viewer for the eventual reveal that Cruz is losing his memory.

While the long scenes combined with a classical, discordant sound track evoke a feeling of paranoia similarly found in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the infrequent cutting also gives the reader a vague sense of the discomfort similar to when a Wi-Fi connection is agonizingly slow. The podcast itself was slow moving, but this tortoise like pace is all the more evident in the television show but surprisingly, not to its detriment.

Though the scenes are long, even edging on a molasses-level pace at times, the effect of disrupting the viewers normal expectations is profound. The show emphasizes a feeling better illustrated in the podcast: an incredible desire to know more about the world it creates.

The podcast had an easier time creating this desire in the listener; as a simple fortune of formatting, the podcast has far less information available to a listener. As a result, the question of “what the hell is actually going on here” was left open.

The podcast’s vague answers and hints at a government conspiracy are emphasized by an unsettling, but iconic, opening theme by composer and sound designer Mark Henry Phillips. The classical piano piece is quiet and discordant, similar to a prelude for the entry of the evil spirit of a dead child in a horror film.

Unfortunately, the show eliminated that wonderful and incredibly disturbing opening theme, but Esmail clearly took the show’s music seriously, incorporating scores made famous by their appearance in such pillars of cinema as “All the President’s Men,” “The Thing” and “Vertigo.”

The producers spared no expense in getting the rights to these classic and thrilling compositions, and they got what they paid for. The soundtrack of the show adds to an overwhelming sense of paranoia and the oppressive anxiety of danger being just around the corner, leaving the viewer wondering what on earth could happen next. The near constant presence of classical music in the credits also emphasizes the final scene of each episode, which is almost always a cliffhanger.

But the show suffers from the classic consequence of trying to merge the world of radio with the world of television. It gives away too much. From the start, the premise of the show is clear. We can see Julia Roberts’ character Bergman’s office, the homecoming facility, the veterans—we understand where Bergman is and her role as a therapist. Listening to the podcast, all of this is left to the imagination of the listener, creating a constant need to know more.

But what can seem at first problematic quickly becomes powerful. Rather than eliminating the sense of ambiguity that made the podcast powerful, the television show adaptation directs the viewer to ask the question: What happened to Heidi? The television show uses the larger pool of information to influence where the viewer looks, rather than the amount they see. By juxtaposing scenes from Bergman’s present with her past, the viewer is left with the question of how she lost her job, her memory and possibly her morality.

The show plays with suspense and paranoia to create a Hitchcock-ian thriller worth anyone’s time. Though it may not rival the podcast, “Homecoming” is an artfully created tribute to the Noir genre, with a plot that would make anyone start looking over their shoulder or ahead for the next season.

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