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Pop Culturing: 'Homecoming' Season 2, Starring Janelle Monáe, is Solid but Can't Escape Season1's Shadow

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Sunday May 24, 2020
Janelle Monáe in a scene from "Homecoming."
Janelle Monáe in a scene from "Homecoming."  (Source:Ali Goldstein/Amazon)

At the end of the first season of "Homecoming," a psychological and conspiracy thriller series on Amazon starring Julia Roberts, Sam Esmail (creator of "Mr. Robot") left the door open enough so the show could continue for more. He expertly directed all 10 30-minute episodes, and purposefully didn't answer all questions that were asked throughout Season 1. Nearly two years later, "Homecoming," based on a popular podcast, returns for a second season, which hits Amazon Friday, with 7 half-hour episodes — except without its star and without its director.

Taking the reins from Roberts is Janelle Monáe and filling in for Esmail is "The Stanford Prison Experiment" filmmaker Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who also has TV directing credits ("Tales of the City," "Counterpoint"). Season 2 starts in a daring way: Monáe's character wakes up in a small rowing boat in the middle of a lake. She's hurt and can't remember anything about her past or who she is. She sees a man in the distance run off and finds a military I.D. in her jacket pocket, suggesting her name is Jackie. Something's off and asking more questions only leads to more danger.

Chris Cooper, left, and Hong Chau, right, in a scene from "Homecoming." Photo credit: Ali Goldstein/Amazon

"Homecoming" Season 2 begins with a bang; almost like a writing prompt a teacher would ask their creative writing students... except it happens to star Monáe, who is excellent as always and it's nice to see her in a lead role instead of supporting. But as the show chugs forward, it enviably has to weave things from Season 1 with its new story, which feels awkward and lame at times. What could have been an interesting series, separate from Season 1, is poorly stitched together as a continuation of a complicated mystery. Alvarez is forced to connect the dots between the two seasons and he isn't always successful, especially as most of the cast does not return for Season 2.

With Roberts (who played social worker Heidi) gone and Season 1 star Stephen James (who plays Walter, a young military vet with PTSD) only back in a small capacity, Alvarez has to rely on old Season 1 footage to move the story forward. But Hong Chau, who had a small role in Season 1 and has since given her incredible performance in "Watchmen" last year, is bumped up to a regular character in Season 2. Alverez smartly makes her an integral part of the story but that comes with a caveat: the more we learn about Chau's Audrey — an assistant-turned-exec at the Geist Group (a nefarious conglomerate that makes a number of different products) — the less interesting she becomes. As the season unfolds and lays out its mystery, much smaller this time around, "Homecoming" feels like a bad sequel, especially when we get to know the moralistic CEO of Geist, Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper), who appears to be a recluse and has no interest into the day-to-day operations of his company. (Joan Cusack also shows up as an official from the Department of Defense.) Without giving too much away, Jackie does find a connection to Geist but more specifically, Audrey. Nevertheless, audiences are smarter than ever before and Season 2 feels like a sequel of yesteryear — a cash grab of sorts completely missing its charm, its intelligence and the people — both in front of and behind the camera — that made it work to its fullest potential.

Janelle Monáe in a scene from "Homecoming." Photo credit: Amazon

Despite that fumble, Alverez does keep many of the hallmarks Esmail injected into Season 1. There are still big winks and nods to Hitchcock; birds-eye-view shots of winding stairs and piercing string orchestra moments punctuate the most thrilling parts of Season 2. But even those overt homages feel stale and odd as Season 2 is less a conspiracy thriller and focuses on Monáe's Jackie; figuring out who she is and what's happened to her.

At its best, "Homecoming" is an efficient story with a great cast. "Homecoming" podcast creators Micha Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz return to Season 2 as showrunners and also pen some of the episodes, which boosts the season. Alvarez does what he can with the tools he has and "Homecoming" ends up being an easy watch that is gripping enough, thanks to its short episode order and the half-hour runtime. Smartly, the season ends in a very interesting way that leaves room for a continuation but if there's no Season 3, fans will still be satisfied.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled "Pop Culturing." Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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