‘Mandatory’ – Homecoming season 1 episode 1 review

Amazon’s new series has a lot more going for it than just its big-name star

Heidi (Julia Roberts) sits down with her 'patient' Walter Cruz (Stephan James)

Somewhere, sometime ago, someone decided that dramas are 50 minutes plus, comedies clock in around 22 minutes. And that’s the way it’s stayed. We’re so conditioned now that we don’t bat an eyelid when The Americans tops the hour mark, but a 30-minute Arrested Development feels bloated and padded out. In this light, it’s incredibly unusual that not one of the 10 episodes of Amazon’s new series Homecoming (a drama/thriller) is over 40-minutes long and some even come in under the 25-minute mark.

Julia Roberts plays Heidi, a counsellor at a mysterious facility for soldiers

These shorter chunks work hugely in the series’ favour. Free of network television’s constraints on running time, there’s no reason why anything has to be any specific length, so it’s somewhat surprising that it took so long for timing to become another tool for showrunners, writers and directors to play around with. Homecoming sets out its stall as a show that isn’t keen on revealing any more than it has to, so wrapping each little parcel of clues and information into a smaller box leaves less to break down and mull over before moving on to the next one. (Keep in mind that we’re reviewing each episode prior to watching the next one and we haven’t listened to the podcast that inspired the show).

Stephan James plays Walter Cruz, a returning soldier trying to reaclimatise to normal life

Homecoming is full of offbeat stylistic decisions that add to the experience in ways that can be difficult to explain. Julia Roberts’ wig, the pelican, the portrait aspect ratio for the flashes forward, all of it is disorientating in a uniquely intriguing way. This is a show that makes it very clear right from the start that it has zero interest in holding your hand – as you’d expect from Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail – and guiding you through its oblique plot. So far, that’s working like gangbusters. We know something’s up – even before Shea Whigham turns in a marina diner asking questions – but we’re damned if we have any idea what it is.

There’s a distinct Columbo-esque crumpledness to Shea Whigham’s Thomas Carrasco

All we can be sure of is that Heidi (Roberts) and her boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale) have done something nefarious involving soldiers returning from duty abroad. We don’t know if we’re more or less clued in than Carrasco (Whigham), or how or when Heidi became aware of it all, but you don’t go from counsellor to waitress unless you’re hiding from something or someone. Anyone who read our Westworld reviews will know my issues with shows that overdo it on the withholding. Homecoming has done an exceptional job in creating an unsettling aura with a shroud of sinister mystery. How it goes about lifting (or not, as the case may be) that shroud will be crucial to its success.

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