It’s really no secret that we — Wil Williams and Elena Fernández-Collins — are not fans of Gimlet’s fiction podcasts so far. We both wanted to take at least a look at the Homecoming adaptation from Amazon, but doing it alone sounded like a slog, so we co-watched it with snacks and alcohol. This is a live reaction chat we had for the first two episodes, edited for your enjoyment, with check-ins and recaps at the beginning, middle, and end. Strap in and grab your alcoholic beverage of choice, readers.
A quick rundown on Homecoming for those of you joining who may not have listened to the podcast. Gimlet’s Homecoming is two seasons and a comic book of a sci-fi thriller about a woman who used to be a therapist to Army men in a project called The Homecoming Initiative, and her quest to find one of her missing patients and fight the shady dealings going down there.
The following article contains some spoilers.
How did we feel about Homecoming Season 1 going into this?
Ely: I liked it, to an extent. I was way not impressed by the treatment of several characters, but David Schwimmer plays a very good Sleazeball and Catherine Keener is a good voice actress. It was Fine™.
Wil: Oh, this is interesting. I absolutely hated Schwimmer’s performance. I could buy him as a sleazeball, but I could not by him as “not just literally David Schwimmer.” For me, he never really melted into the role. Otherwise, though, I’m with you. I thought it sounded good, and I thought some facets were interesting, but its level of hype way oversold, and the podcast itself failed to live up to those expectations.
Ely: I admit that I don’t really know a lot about David Schwimmer — I didn’t watch a lot of Friends, I’ve literally never seen him in anything else, and I don’t follow celebrity news very closely so I have no idea what he’s like in other roles. However, he’s not in this, which….is baffling to me.
Wil: Yeah like–why did they change the cast? I’m very confused?
Ely: The non-cynic in me says because Julia Roberts sells more views than Keener does. And that’s the non-cynical version.
Wil: Hahahaha, oof
Ely: The cynical version is that this was originally scripted to be for TV with Roberts, but they couldn’t swing getting Roberts for an audio fiction role.
What were our feelings on Mr. Robot or Esmail’s other work?
Wil: I’m a big big Mr. Robot fan, so that’s giving me some hope.
Ely: I watched the first few episodes of Mr. Robot! I liked them, but I didn’t continue because the story itself was not my jam at the time. But it was some solid directing.
Wil: Okay let’s go for it.
Ely: God help us.
[Walter Cruz, played by Stephan James, comes on screen in opening scene]
Ely: God they changed the ENTIRE cast. This actually deeply bothers me for the Walter role. Oscar Isaac and Stephan James are both POC, but non-Black Latinx people and Black people are not interchangeable?? It doesn’t have a huge effect in the podcast’s story, but I’m Bothered.
Wil: No, it’s pretty grody.
Wil: Hmm, this is interesting. They flipped this to start with the recording and not the diner. I don’t know what that adds. Roberts’s performance is interesting. It’s like she’s meant to be joking about how boring this is, but her body language and face suggests that she absolutely hates everything she’s saying.
[We observe a conversation in the café in the modern day. In all these modern-day scenes, the aspect ratio goes from a standard, modern 16:9 to a dated 4:3. We bring this up later.]
Ely: Just me or are all the performances falling a little flat for you?
Wil: They’re falling a little flat, but Esmail has that kind of manicured style. It works better in Mr. Robot for me than this so far, but we’ll see.
Ely: Oh I see. That’s interesting! Keener’s portrayal of this character was really, um, kind with Walter? Roberts’ comes across as colder.
Wil: MUCH colder.
Wil: Yeah, no, the performances are very weird. I don’t buy that she is talking on the phone at all–it sounds like she is saying her lines while holding her phone. Visually, I’m loving this–but the performances are so disjointed.
[Shot of “HOMECOMING” branding on the wall.]
Ely: NAME DROP
Ely: do we take a drink
I’m taking a drink
Wil: I’m a fan of this longshot, though–it gives a sense of place that definitely could not have been established in audio
[The scene suddenly cuts to reveal Colin in a lab with pineapples and blood]
Ely: OH what
Wil: Oh dang, that was a Cut
Ely: Ok, was this location established in the audio or were we led to be believed that he was def in an airport the whole time?
Wil: I really love that he WASN’T in the airport. It was a bold bold choice, but definitely another argument for this story being a better fit for visual. Other than the weird performances, I’m actually enjoying this much more than the podcast so far.
[The scene is Heidi and Thomas at a dining room table.]
Ely: Oh I just realized why I’m having a hard time with the performances. The lighting is causing me to be unable to read faces as well as I usually can.
Wil: I also think it’s filmed like . . . they’re not in the same room, talking together? It somehow feels more separate than in audio, when usually actors aren’t recording a scene in the same room at the same time.
[The scene cuts to a job interview practice with the Homecoming participants]
Ely: I’m definitely in favor of focusing more on the victims of the Homecoming project. One of my issues was their lack of care for Walter in particular, even though he’s the central point. A plot device, basically.
Wil: Absolutely–but this is a weird way of doing it so far. It doesn’t feel incredibly sympathetic.
[The scene deteriorates into fighting]
Ely: I take it back.
[The scene cuts to a therapy session between Heidi and Walter]
Ely: Cinematographically speaking, this is brilliant
Wil: Yeah, it REALLY is. It’s stunning
Ely: Roberts’ performance is falling *super* flat. And they kept the bird.
Wil: Yeah she’s such a weird, weird fit. I’m really confused by her casting and how she’s being directed. But also hey come sci-fi audio fiction is obsessed with birds?
Ely: I also have this question??
Ely: I think, and this is me spitballing, that they’re giving her direction to be clinical psychologist person, amiable but removed, and I think they just had her lean into it not hard enough? So it’s just kind of awkward
Wil: Yeah, it’s really awkward. Clinical psychologists should make patients feel relaxed so they can evaluate an honest version of who that patient is.
Ely: Like they remembered “oh right, she’s supposed to be kind to Walter because she goes on this huge long journey to find him so… maybe not that removed”, but last minute.
[We note that the episode is nearly over]
Wil: oh woah really? are they just half an hour?
Why wouldn’t they go full hour????
Ely: especially since I don’t really feel like anything happened
this was a half hour of set-up
[The episode ends]
hey, the fuck?
hey how come?
did this happen in the first episode in the podcast?
Ely: I no longer remember, I think I binged the first three eps together
Wil: same. I binged the whole thing
If you were just watching this without having listened to the podcast, would you keep watching?
Ely: You know what: no, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t understand the hook, because it’s not presented at all. There’s some dudes in therapy after being in the army, and one of them has therapy sessions with this character who no longer remembers what she did there, which I would think means she’s just lying, and he’s important somehow. But the acting is way too flat for me to be able to figure out why I’m supposed to care about her.
And I think that’s why they introduced the Cut with Colin; to be able to be like “hey SHADY THINGS”, but I think it’s not enough.
Wil: Agreed. I would only watch it because I like Sam Esmail and it’s pretty, and I know I’d keep getting a pretty Sam Esmail show. I wouldn’t keep watching for virtue of anything else.
Which is funny, because so far, knowing what’s coming, I do like it a lot more than the podcast, and I’m curious to see what it’s going to do with those things. But without that knowledge, it’d be a much harder sell for me.
Ely: Yeah, unfortunately, I don’t have a ton of experience with Esmail’s work either. I agree it’s visually stunning, but that’s not enough to keep me gripped if I didn’t know what was coming.
Wil: OPINION FROM FRIEND WATCHING WITH ME WHO HASN’T HEARD THE PODCAST: “Nothing was set up. I, the watcher, have no real idea of what’s happening or why it matters. I don’t are about the characters, even. It’s been jarring shot after jarring shot after jarring shot, and I know there’s something intense going on, but I don’t know what it is. You know how when you over-spice food, it winds up actually turning out bland? It was like that.”
Ely: Update from the trenches: I am halfway through this bag of Oreo thins and also this glass of wine.
[Episode 2 begins]
Ely: OMINOUS SHOTS OF VARIOUS THERAPY ROOMS
Wil: Love this music
Ely: OMINOUS SHOTS OF HALLS AND STAIRCASES
Wil: This intro is Trying Too Hard
Ely: OMINOUS SHOT OF PINEAPPLE ON A PLATE
Ely: there is WAY too much music going on.
Wil: I’m not gonna lie–I kinda like it. I kinda like how physically uncomfortable it makes me. But it is trying way, way too hard.
I’m Wil Williams, Lover of Being Made Physically Uncomfortable By Bad Bad Noises
[A therapy session with Walter begins]
Wil: I do really like James’ performance so far
Ely: yeah agreed, I like Stephan James’ work a lot. It’s why I’m especially irked by Roberts’ performance; it makes the relationship feel disjointed
Wil: Yes. So far in this episode, she’s feeling more like a Person, which is nice.
Ely: Interestingly, after the first episode, her laughing and interest feels artificial too me, and like she’s lying.
[The comedic timing of the conversation quickly ends as Walter says that his friend, the subject of the conversation, died]
Wil: GOOD DROP
Ely: oh awkward silence good
Wil: LOVED THAT
Ely: fully agree, excellently done
god these weird cuts to the desert
[The scene cuts, and the new setting is dressed with an obnoxious neon sign]
Ely: what is UP with that sign
Wil: Ew her “Wanna talk about it” really bothered me. It felt like she hated saying that line.
I actually love the cuts. It feels the way that PTSD feels. Those tiny little half-flashbacks, like constantly.
Ely: Yeah that make so much sense. Jarring, but on purpose in a way
Wil: but that sign is RIDICULOUS
[Walter and Shrier’s conversation about Florida begins]
Ely: I know that they have this conversation in the mess hall/cafeteria in the podcast, but this is super weirdly loud volume for this conversation
Why isn’t he whispering?
Ely: why is he yelling!
Wil: I feel like he should be too worried to be this loud!
Wil: I like his performance here a lot–he’s selling it–but they let him be way too loud with it.
Ely: yeah — like this part is fine, right, but there wasn’t enough escalation
Wil: okay this is Too Much
Ely: so now he has to go super big
I tackled this problem a lot in stage theater.
Wil: Oh do tell!
Ely: it’s when you have an explosive scene, you need to build up to it and take the audience with you, so that you can actually have an explosion, instead of having to strain yourself to find a way to be Bigger, so you have to start small and that means, whispering, or small gestures first. Which he wasn’t doing — you don’t want the audience to feel like there’s no crescendo and there was no crescendo in that scene. There was just “loud” and then “wow way too much”.
[The scene cuts to the detective inspecting the Homecoming case. He’s looking over a document.]
Ely: Interesting cut to the detective here.
Wil: I have no idea what that document is supposed to suggest. I feel like that was really confusing and poorly done. How are you feeling about this 4:3 aspect ratio?
Ely: I’m feeling like I like it. It’s meant to make you feel boxed in I think, and uncomfortable, but it’s pretty jarring in comparison with the rest.
Ely: I keep waiting for his picture to slide over for us to get an image of Gloria on the other side of the phone.
Wil: It’s a confusing choice given this is a more modern time period than the 16:9 scenes. It feels like it should be the other way around? Mr. Robot did this with an episode that was shot like a sitcom with a full laugh track, but here it just seems like, “I know a fun trick, let’s use it to show that things are different.”
[The scene changes to a conversation between Heidi and her mother]
Ely: Ok, I do feel like Roberts is warming up in the role a little now.
There’s a bit more fire in her in that scene with her mother
Wil: That’s so funny–I was just going to say she stepped back for me
There’s more fire, but it just felt like she was reading her lines louder to me.
[The scene changes back to one with the detective and a woman at the station, who is juggling a baby and paperwork.]
Wil: lol why didn’t they get this actress to be the lead, she’s already worlds more interesting
Also, people don’t talk like he does.
Ely: they do not
Wil: That scene was Weird. It felt like it was written by two writers who didn’t talk to each other.
[The scene cuts to a phone conversation between Heidi and Colin]
Ely: what is up with the cuts to Colin
Wil: It’s a Choice to make him keep the phone voice while we’re with him
[The screen splits to have Heidi on one half and Colin on the other half of the screen]
Ely: HA I KNEW THEY WERE GOING TO DO THAT
Wil: I don’t think I like the texture on their voices here. It’s weird.
Ely: yeah they’re both phone voiced and it’s…. like I’m hearing them from underwater
Wil: Like, just have it on his? And don’t have it there while we’re with him? It sounds like they’re trying to remind people that this is what it sounded like in the podcast.
Which is weird because it’s not rewarding as someone who has, and it’s confusing for people who haven’t
Ely: also I’m not sure how I feel about Colin’s actor’s performance.
Wil: Me either
Ely: It feels like he’s trying to emulate Schwimmer’s, but he’s coming across as more aggressive than sleazy.
[The episode ends]
Ely: These episodes are SO short for the visual medium
Wil: This episode also felt like it did nothing!
Wil: Wow. Yeah, I’ve gone from curiosity to just full on not enjoying it. I was pretty hopeful, but nope.
Ely: yeah same
well, I wasn’t hopeful
So: would you keep watching it?
Ely: If I didn’t know what was coming, no. I would have watched this episode under duress and then given up.
Wil: Yeah, so far, it’s a no from me. It feels a little bit like Sam Esmail has been given a sandbox to try a bunch of interesting things and see what he likes and what he doesn’t versus making one show. There are a lot of choices being made, but it feels like throwing spaghetti at the wall. The performance from Roberts is too disjointed for me to care about her, and while it’s stunning, some of the choices are too distracting to feel immersed in most of the scenes.
Ely: A good summation. I’ll be honest, I didn’t notice the aspect ratio decision until you pointed it out. So some of those choices are also just going to be lost on certain audiences. Which, like, when it’s your major way plus a vague whooshing sound of indicating when you’re changing time periods… that’s a problem.
Wil: Yeah, definitely. I think a lot is going to be lost on a lot of audiences. I’m sure a lot was lost on me.
How do you like it compared with the podcast?
Ely: Honestly, I was way more invested in the podcast than I am in this, EVEN knowing the plot and where this is going And I think it really hinges on the issue I have with Roberts v. Keener.
Keener’s performance sold it for me and between her and Isaac were the major reasons I kept listening. And Schwimmer but I wanted to punch his character in the groin repeatedly.
Here, I’m just…. eh.
Wil: I think I’m a little flipped, but my reasons are the same. Keener was incredible in that performance, but I’m actually much more invested here. I think that the visuals allow it to be ambitious and novel, whereas the podcast fell flat for me because I’d heard it done so many times before, but better–Mac Rogers’s work comes to mind, as does Limetown, and as do most modern-day sci-fi audio fictions. At least with the show, I’m getting some bold choices, even if they don’t stick. I might keep watching if I need something to watch, whereas with the podcast, I only listened out of a sense of duty.
So, the show is not as good in its performances, but it is more interesting, and I think that’s more appealing to me given I’m not into the story anyway.
Ely: Yeah this is where our personal tastes differ. I have a pretty strong aversion to watching something because it’s got good visual choices if I don’t like basically any of the performances; James is the exception here, but there’s not enough of him and his character to keep me invested. The Homecoming audio I felt did something interesting enough even if it wasn’t novel, and I liked the performances more. So! If you like visually stunning shows even if the performances are not great, you will probably like this. If your enjoyment deeply hinges on performances, then probably not.
Wil: I think that if nothing else, this proves that adapting audio fiction can be interesting and ambitious, doing more than just showing what happens in the audio.
Ely: Oh fully agree. You can make choices to improve on the audio, adapt it in ways that make sense for the viewer and will be intriguing both to people who know the origin and people who don’t (e.g. the use of the cut to Colin in the first episode, the longshots, the aspect ratio). it’s possible to make it work.
PS. This is leagues better than Alex Inc
Wil: OH, A MILLION PERCENT.
lol, Alex Inc. Who even allowed any of that. Maybe one day we’ll get an adaptation with a lead who works well. Here’s holding out hope for Night Vale, Alice, and The Bright Sessions.
Ely: And Lesser Gods and Limetown! So many fiction podcast IPs…
Wil: So many! And I think we’ve only really got room to improve.
Ely: Alex Inc set the bar low.
Wil: How are you feeling about this 4😸 aspect ratio?