Warning: This story references happenings from Homecoming S1 but tries to avoid any major spoilers for FX’s Devs and the new second season of Homecoming.
Sometimes Hollywood at large seems to embrace the infamous Google strategy: make two of everything and see what sticks. Who recently asked for twin dog-as-best-friend-but-end-of-life tearjerkers? And did audiences need dual “Nikola Tesla races to make electricity” biopics starring beloved heartthrobs? (In a world where The Prestige already exists, probably not.)
This spring, streaming TV got in on this strategy, too. A pair of shows centered on secretive, shady startups—companies doing almost otherworldly things that piqued government interest but really complicated an employee’s life—each arrived with star-boasting casts and filmmaking pedigrees behind the camera. Like a dutiful TV reviewer, I watched the first four episodes of both series. Despite each having oodles of style, one felt opaque and unnecessarily complex, like piecing together a puzzle without knowing what the full picture was at the start.
And the other is Amazon’s Homecoming, which hits Prime with seven new episodes this weekend. (Apologies to FX’s Devs, which I’ll likely never finish.)
Though Homecoming lost some high profile talent ahead of S2—Julia Roberts’ character doesn’t appear and Sam Esmail did not direct any of these episodes—you wouldn’t call this show depleted after watching this new run of episodes. In her first starring TV role, Janelle Monáe is as captivating as ever. She plays a woman named Jackie who is struggling to remember how precisely she ended up alone and passed out on a boat in the middle of a remote lake. And instead of Bobby Cannavale representing our main corporate cog for the Geist behemoth, Hong Chau (the actor behind Lady Trieu of Watchmen) reprises her role as Audrey. Her corporate exec of few words was last seen as a pseudo-big bad at the very end of S1, but she gets fleshed out quite a bit here.
Jackie’s journey and the dynamic between Jackie and Audrey might be the most thrilling parts of these new episodes, similar to how the conversations between Roberts and Stephan James as Walter ended up as S1’s most riveting part. The only disadvantage for Chau and Monáe comes from circumstance: Roberts and James had the benefit of Geist’s overall product and scheme being a mystery that our two main characters learned and navigated together with the audience. This time around, audiences have a lot more info, taking away a bit of the show’s intrigue and tension. If story felt secondary at times to the performances for you in S1, that dynamic will be amplified here.
The chemistry between its leads, of course, was only half of Homecoming’s initial appeal. Mr. Robot creator Sam Email had generously applied his small screen cinematic lens, using different aspect ratios, lens filters, and a robust palette of ’70s film homages. New director Kyle Patrick Alvarez did previous work on Starz’ visually inventive Counterpart, so he appears to have the chops to carry over some of S1’s same visual language (with the emphasis on “some,” given how inventive Esmail has always been). For Alvarez, S2’s premier in particular feels delightfully Hitchcock-ian, as Jackie at times seems engulfed by large pines or encased in a spooky motel straight out of Twin Peaks.
As for the story unfolding in these episodes, well, that’s where Devs comes in.
Prestige isn’t the point
Understanding the plot of Homecoming S2 absolutely requires a “previously on” montage. Rather than Shea Wigham detectiving into a new case (sidebar: nothing ever improves by losing Shea Wigham), these episodes revolve around the same basic happenings—just from new perspectives. We’re again watching the Geist signature product being cultivated and applied, the government still contracts with them to do unsavory things, Walter Cruz still endures some less-than-ideal circumstances.
As such, any mysteries (like, why is Janelle Monáe left out to sea again?) are a bit narrower in comparison to S1. We’re not watching plot gain momentum toward a grand conclusion; we’re largely learning about more of the plot’s mechanics, the stuff previously in the background.
This sounds bland when you spell it out like that, but some of the best television shows in recent memory have deployed this basic concept to an extent. Watchmen gave viewers multiple perspectives of the same events in consecutive episodes; Better Call Saul is entirely about the mechanics of how one bad guy lawyer grew into his sleeze. Homecoming is not of the same caliber, but this show knows the story it’s telling and commits to exploring it from new angles. S2 has a confined plot and commits to revealing it stylishly, succinctly (with this and I Am Not Okay With This, half-hour drama remains my favorite bingeable format), and with new likable characters. (In addition to Jackie and Audrey, Geist himself makes an appearance, played by Chris Cooper of “rage-y neighbor in American Beauty” fame.) This season ain’t cracking TV’s Mount Rushmore or Alan Sepinwall’s Top 20 of 2020, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable (think more Stranger Things S2 than Mr. Robot S2).
That bit of reflection kept taking my mind back to Devs. TV critics generally seemed smitten by that show’s ambition and perplexed by how small Homecoming has set out to be in S2, but I’ve come away feeling the opposite. Devs’ hourlong episodes could be a slog, as the show didn’t seem to know whether it cared more about the kinetic personal action (our “hero” employee trying to get the upper hand and figure out her sinister employer) or about some possibly magical machine with greater philosophical implications. The former is the stuff that kept you going through early episodes, but the latter had so much time devoted to it that you couldn’t help but feel “this must be the point” even as the series didn’t seem to understand how to translate it for everyone sticking with the show. So after four episodes, I stopped, and no “oh, you have to stick it out ’til the finale!” rationale could suck me back in.
Homecoming, on the other hand, never feels overly weighty or chore-ish. The defined focus and faster run time (you could watch all of Homecoming’s two seasons in roughly the same amount of time as Devs’ one) means no sequences feel obviously aimless or like filler. The show has presented what Geist is doing as fact without some mind-occupying takeaway, so instead the series stays most interested in the action. After four episodes, I wanted to see how everything played out and had to stop myself from just “play next”-ing through the whole thing. (Amazon outlined a number of things reviewers couldn’t reveal, and it seemed a number of those things cluster in the season’s second half—temptation avoided.)
To borrow the Hollywood twins analogy once more, one of these evil corporation shows aimed for prestige glory and ended up as The Equalizer. The other knew it wanted to be a competent b-movie the whole time and delivered John Wick. And if being parked on my couch looking for a new show to watch mid-pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes it’s OK to put the pressure for ambitious greatness on hold for a minute and just enjoy something. As you’d expect, Janelle Monáe guarantees a certain base level of that.