When serialized fiction has a great cast along with a tightly edited plot that propels the story forward, while constantly keeping you guessing, it’s a sure bet for binge consumption. The podcast Homecoming, presented by Gimlet Media, has this recipe down. Its two, six-episode seasons are comprised of taut psychological drama anchored by the powerful emotional performance of its star, Catherine Keener.
We meet Heidi Bergman, (Keener) in season one. She’s a case worker in an experimental facility called Homecoming, ostensibly employed to help former soldier and PTSD sufferer Walter Cruz (Oscar Isaac) reintegrate into society, and deliver him regular doses of an experimental solution meant to help with his trauma. She takes regular calls from her boss, boss, Colin Belfast, played against-type by David Schwimmer, here a scheming, backstabbing villain.
She’s a true empath. When doing what’s best for her patient runs counter to what Belfast demands it wrecks her soul. Before too long, it’s revealed that her long talks with Walter, wherein she provides him with emotional support, are being recorded. The care she displays for her patient is not appreciated by the higher-ups. The purpose of these experiments is revealed: the experimental medicine is meant to make the soldiers forget their trauma so they can be sent back into battle.
The combative scenes between Keener and Schwimmer over the life of Walter, who seems like an interloper caught in the middle of a power struggle, are the very definition of nail-biting.
“The heart of Homecoming is people making mistakes in the moment” co-writer Micah Bloomberg told Observer by phone. “We treat everyone in the story like they are just trying to get through the day and accomplish their goals.”
Season two takes place five years later. Heidi is working as a waitress after having dosed herself with the experimental solution to forget the horrors of what she did to Walter. Colin comes after her in order to find Walter, who has been missing since the experiment ended. The company is determined to bring him back.
Along with the tension that arrises when Colin and Heidi try to work together, there’s also a beautiful game of one-upmanship between Colin and his boss Audrey Temple, played with ferocity by Amy Sedaris.
While season one was confined to one location in the Homecoming base of operations, season two is relatively sprawling in its scope with the quest for Walter Cruz taking our erstwhile heroes to far-flung locations. Along the way, we meet a cast of supporting characters: Homecoming assistant Becky; Heidi’s sort-of ex-boyfriend; and an extremely sympathetic and protective shooting range employee. They are played by Alia Shawkat, David Cross, and Chris Gethard respectively, all of whom shine in these roles.
Nearly everyone in Homecoming is at odds with each other. Many of them don’t quite know what’s going on half of the time. Bloomberg explained, “It’s a thriller, but we almost approached it as a comedy. We’re not going for laughs every time, but it is about people not understanding each other.”
Homecoming has attracted tremendous attention and is being developed into a television show for Amazon, set to star Julia Roberts. Eli Horowitz, director and co-writer of the podcast, and former editor and publisher of McSweeney’s, spoke to Observer by phone about how the audio show came into being.
Did you plan Homecoming as a two-season story?
We always knew we wanted to keep going after season one, but we didn’t know what kind of response there would be. It was more important that season one left a door open.
I think there’s a danger to planning in advance, because sometimes your focus is on setting things up ahead, and it can distract you from seeing what’s close at hand.
How did the cast come together?
It was a real surprise. We just made a list, and we thought we should start with our dream cast. Catherine Keener as Heidi Bergman was at the top of that list. So we asked her, and then within a few days she said yes. It was kind of a shock, and I still don’t understand why she agreed, but then everything fell into place.
That really set the tone for the whole project. Heidi Bergman is a character who makes a lot of mistakes, but you’re still kind-of on her side through those mistakes, and Keener has that mix of fallibility and empathy that just felt right.
I was wondering about your experiences working in a corporate environment—Homecoming often feels like layers of people yelling at each other.
I’ve been blessed to mostly avoid a corporate environment. Even when I was at McSweeney’s a lot of the work was conducted over the phone with other writers. Something I realized after writing Homecoming is that there is a tendency for writers to fall into these weird self-conscious habits. We’re all thinking “Am I being the Colin in this phone call?” or, “Am I being the Heidi?”
I really like the short interview segments at the end of the first season episodes. Then for the second season, you released The Lost Coast, a six-episode novella on iBooks that came out concurrently with each episode. Tell me about these story-telling devices and why you decided to change it up between seasons.
We wanted to try some new story ideas with the world of season two, and at first we weren’t sure what to do. Then we realized we could serialize them alongside the episodes as a storytelling experiment.
I didn’t know how many more after shows we could do. I felt embarrassed because it felt like I was forcing myself into people’s ears, and answering questions that no one had necessarily asked.
Phone calls are so often infused with this extra drama, and weird things happen that are kind-of enjoyable. It was a fun moment for me before when I called and you were totally confused and silent for five seconds.
So once you start looking for those moments, there’s so much more drama than we realize. There are so many weird things that we don’t consciously register.
When you really pay attention to phone call conversations in general, it becomes a little obsessive.
Joshua Dudley tries to discover truth and meaning through culture and entertainment. In his People Who Podcast column, he talks to the people behind some of the most fun and interesting podcasts available today. Find him on Twitter, Instagram and LI.ST: @dudleyjoshua.