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'Homecoming' review: Janelle Monae follows Julia Roberts down memory lane

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

If all podcast-to-streaming adaptations came off as beautifully as the first season of Amazon's "Homecoming," "Homecoming" season two (premiering Friday) would be a spellbinder instead of what it is: a sleek follow-up roughly halfway between "gripping" and "a pretty good try."

The seven half-hour episodes feature a wealth of wily, charismatic actors, a few back for an encore from season one. How those episodes work for those who haven't seen the set-up -- the Julia Roberts-headlined 2018 season -- is tough to assess. I'd have to unsee it to find out.

This time, no Julia Roberts. Janelle Monae takes the lead. It begins with a simple, trailer-friendly hook: A woman wakes up in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, alone, with no idea how she got there. The man on the shore doesn't help her. Gradually Monae, who plays the foggy-headed mystery woman, puts a few too-convenient clues together. After establishing the present-day dilemma, the new "Homecoming" jumps back in time, darting in and out of the narrative framework established in season one.

Avoiding spoilers as much as possible: Jackie, the woman Monae thinks she is, is the longtime partner of Audrey (Hong Chau), the relentlessly patronized receptionist at the sinister Geist corporation. At season one's end Audrey ascended, triumphantly, turning the tables on her bullying superior (Bobby Cannavale), just as the U.S. Department of Defense investigation into a Geist program called Homecoming turned up a world of deception, begging for scapegoats.

Designed to assist returning Iraq war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Homecoming facility was, in reality, a secret drug-trial regimen feeding a memory-destroying, plant-derived substance to unsuspecting soldiers returning home. Season two starts making a case for itself in episode three, with the return of Walter Cruz, the U.S. Army vet played by Stephan James, whose counseling and friendship with the Roberts character gave season one its spine.

Newcomers to the new season include Chris Cooper as the hermit-like visionary Leonard Geist, referred to but not seen in season one. Also there's Joan Cusack, having a high, droll time of it as a Pentagon official giddy at the prospect of using the memory berry for all sorts of new and fabulous projects. Podcast and series creators and writers Mica Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz remain on board this season Last season was directed, with unnerving skill, by Sam Esmail ("Mr. Robot"). Season two director Kyle Patrick Alvarez works in a related if less inspired visual universe, full of split-screen activity riffing on Brian De Palma, among others. It suggests also the next retro generation of Zoom meetings.

The story feels thinner this time, not simply 90 minutes shorter (though the finale's pretty terrific). Monae works in stealth mode, carefully controlling each reaction and interaction. Generally that approach works, though I suspect she has looser, more surprising work ahead of her. When Monae loosens up with Chau (when the material allows it, that is), the series discovers a valuable human element. Conspiracy thrillers can be about people, or they can be about plot, or they can be about both, which is very, very difficult. At its best season two manages both, and among its adroit plusses, there's a clever original score by composer Emile Mosseri ("The Last Black Man in San Francisco"), taking things away from the first season's brazen soundtrack-sampling of Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone and other giants.

Why does memory loss remain such a potent plot device? I forget. Just kidding. It's because your memories pull us back while pushing us forward, and being forced to improvise your way through a treasure hunt means the rules and signifiers are changing every second. In works as disparate as the Jason Bourne movies, Christopher Nolan's "Memento" and "Homecoming," the characters' haunted confusion and jagged brain chasms allow writers, directors and actors a full range of interior pain, externalized. Season two of "Homecoming," more action-oriented than season one, goes down easily, though your nerves never feel entirely ... unnerved. And that's the point. Isn't it?

 

'HOMECOMING'

3 stars (out of 4)

Season two premieres Friday on Amazon Prime.

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