Julia Roberts’s face is unmistakeable; her most iconic looks in big movies over the years tend to accentuate her eyes and her smile. I note this because I have not always loved Julia Roberts, and I think the only real reason is that she is a bona-fide movie star. She has, of course, earned that status over many decades of excellent work, but it’s hard for me to get very excited about watching movie stars be movie stars; it just isn’t that interesting.
But Julia Roberts is not here to be a movie star. Homecoming hides her face as much as I have ever seen a camera do, and it mostly does it with bangs and shadows. Heidi Bergman, Roberts’s character on Homecoming, always wears her hair down, obscuring either side of her face. To top it all off, she wears bangs that fall all the way down to her eyebrows. Look back at Julia Roberts’s most iconic roles, her best-known red carpet looks: Julia Roberts doesn’t do bangs. If her hair is down, it’s swept behind her shoulders, taking a backseat to that face. That face! Who would obscure a forehead and cheekbones and a jawline like Julia Roberts’s? Heidi Bergman, that’s who.
Actors who are hot in real life get a lot of credit for making themselves hideous or disfigured for a role: see Oscar winners Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted (and no, it doesn’t count if the whole point of the role is that the character turns out to be hot once she is properly motivated. Yes, I am looking at you, Princess Diaries). Julia Roberts isn’t ugly as Heidi Bergman; far from it. She is merely plain, her appearance an afterthought - which of course it isn’t, actually, because making Julia Roberts inconspicuously plain takes very thoughtful work.
The obscurity of Julia Roberts’s face isn’t the only thing that makes everything in Homecoming feel off: the color is washed out of most shots, and the edges of every frame are slightly blurred. Once I saw this I couldn’t un-see it. Heidi Bergman exists on two temporal planes within the show: 2018 Heidi Bergman, counselor at the Homecoming Center for veterans returning from the Middle East, and 2022 Heidi Bergman, waitress at a seafood joint somewhere by the ocean. The latter Heidi brusquely dismisses any discussion of her past life or her work at Homecoming, which we are slowly watching play out in 2018. We know that at some point, something will happen with or to 2018 Heidi Bergman that will alter the course of her life (and, it seems increasingly likely, at least a few other people’s lives), but we don’t have enough information at any point to even guess about what that might be until several episodes in. Yet, it never feels like the show is intentionally holding anything back; the logic of the way things unfold makes sense and doesn’t make us feel led on or cheated. Everything is presented to us as it unfolds, and the blurry edges of the screen don’t let us forget how uncertain and fragile all of it really is.
While Julia Roberts is the actor with the most screen time and the one doing the hardest job, in many ways, the rest of the cast strikes the same brilliantly subtle, dysphoric chord that makes the show so unsettling and exciting. Some shows that I really like have characters that just don’t interest me at all; during certain stretches of the Game of Thrones run, for example, I would audibly groan and almost turn my brain off whenever Jon Snow appeared on screen. Homecoming doesn’t have a single character that I’m not excited to see and hear from at any given moment. This is in part the advantage of a half-hour drama, the quality that I have heard most often praised about the show. It grabs on and it never lets go; there is no filler, there are no lulls. That’s not to say there’s a great deal of action: the only spoiler I’ll put in here is that there is one scene where Julia Roberts shoves a certain hulking male actor into a fountain (he totally deserves it and it’s so satisfying), but aside from that, there are very few true action sequences. There are lots of thoughtful conversations with long pauses. All of these actors are a pleasure to watch as they both speak and react: Stephan James as Walter Cruz, one of the veterans being treated at Homecoming; Bobby Cannavale as Colin Belfast, Heidi’s boss; Shea Whigam as Thomas Carrasco, the Dept. of Defense officer asking questions about Homecoming in the 2022 storyline; and, hey, Alex Karpovsky as the obnoxious try-hard Craig. Shoutout to Dermot Mulroney, too, who plays Heidi’s needy boyfriend Anthony in the first few episodes. He gets the unceremonious boot when he tries to take away her phone to prevent her from answering a call from Colin: “We’re done. Get your shit outta my bathroom, and your fuckin’ forks.” Homecoming is not a funny show, but funny moments like this one abound.
The phone calls between Heidi and Colin are the glue that cement the series together, hence Heidi’s rage at Anthony when he tries to intercept one. All of the show’s exposition is delivered via these conversations, which sometimes occupy as much as 1/3 of an episode’s running time, and despite the fact that we are literally watching two people talk to one another, the actors are riveting to observe. Bobby Cannavale as Colin has full range of motion, as he speaks to Heidi via wireless earpiece and generally wanders around whatever happens to be going on around him, including, in one comically sad and revealing scene, his young daughter’s birthday party. Heidi, we see, is completely focused on the call, holding her phone in one hand and the speaker on her earbuds in the other, listening intently the whole time and trying to tell Colin what he wants to hear. The split screen makes our experience of the two-way conversation seamless - we watch as they each speak and react. Colin is alternately buffoonish and menacing; Heidi oscillates between persuasive and conciliatory. Colin never manages Heidi in person, but as he promises her in the bottom screenshot on the left, if she steps out of line, “trust me, I will find out about it, and you will be out on your ass...put your emotions aside and do your fucking job.”
“Yes, understood,” is all she says. Her face, though obscured almost completely by bangs and shadows, does all the rest of the work. The camera lingers and lets it happen. Are you shifting uncomfortably in your seat? Good; stay with it and hit “next episode.”