You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Menacing Midcentury Aesthetic of Prestige TV

What lies beneath the sleek stylings of dystopian shows like "Homecoming"

Courtesy of Amazon Prime

In an early scene in the first episode of Homecoming, Amazon’s new psychological thriller series, Julia Roberts walks through a series of rooms, talking rapidly on her phone. It is an important conversation: This is the first time we hear Roberts’s character, a social worker named Heidi Bergman, speaking with her neurotic, overbearing boss Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale). But the scene’s main function is to set up a menacing aesthetic: As Heidi walks, the camera reveals the hallways of the Homecoming facility, where she works for Geist, a pharmaceutical conglomerate contracted by the government to treat soldiers returning from combat.

Homecoming has what I can only describe as a “midcentury macabre” look—a sleek, aloof style that signals something is not quite right. The walls are smooth redwood panels with sculptural silver sconces; the couches are low, tufted, and lemon yellow. Each resident at Homecoming has kitschy palm tree-print curtains at his window, an austere writing desk that looks like a secretary’s perch out of Mad Men, and a shiny, squat, mustard-colored desk lamp. Everything inside Homecoming is angular, from the geometric art to the Escheresque wall tiles. Everything is lit like the Valencia filter on Instagram, with a wash of avocado green and a hazy golden glow. Nothing here is comforting.

This is the aesthetic of modern prestige television horror. It keeps popping up again and again: Black Mirror showed us subtle dystopias unfolding in pristine modernist homes, while Mr. Robot offered besuited executives planning the downfall of humanity in slick corporate headquarters. The look clearly references a bygone era—the 1950s, when America’s growing military-industrial bureaucracy provoked fears of surveillance, repression, and a state dangerously empowered by devastating new technologies. But it also pulls from the stylings of Silicon Valley today. With its tasteful, Rothkoesque wall art and quirky geometric touches, the Homecoming facility could pass for any well-funded tech start-up, an incubator of disruption. We are supposed to guess, from all this, that Homecoming is not what it seems. It’s too manicured, too monotone, too minimalist. Something is lurking beneath the tasteful, marbleized surfaces.

This visual style does a lot of work in Homecoming, which is based on a podcast of the same name. The series was podcast network Gimlet Media’s first scripted drama, an all-out effort to demonstrate the medium’s potential for upscale storytelling. To this end, Gimlet stacked the cast with splashy Hollywood talent: Catherine Keener played Heidi, David Schwimmer played Colin, and Oscar Isaac played Walter Cruz, a veteran undergoing treatment at Homecoming. The mystery writer Eli Horowitz and sound mixer Micah Bloomberg wrote the series, which had no narrator and instead presented the story as a set of found audio snippets. Following the story felt like listening in on classified tapes and uncovering a conspiracy: We hear Heidi and Colin discussing dosing and data collection on the phone; we hear recordings of Heidi, years later, working as a waitress; and we fit the pieces together ourselves.

Adapted for television, Homecoming’s narrative plays more like a straightforward drama, and leans heavily on its aesthetic to build tension. In the first episode, Walter (Stephan James) begins his course of therapy with Heidi. He has just returned from a particularly painful tour, on which he lost one of his close friends and fellow soldiers to an IED explosion. Heidi draws Walter out, asking him about his life before joining up and about the jokes he shared in the Army—like the time guys in his unit convinced a soldier named Benji that there was a Titanic sequel called Titanic Rising and made up elaborate plot points. The scene looks like a typical therapy session between a willing patient and a professional who wants to guide him. But as the first episode jumps into the future, we see that just a few years later, everything has gone wrong: Homecoming is closed and classified; Heidi is waitressing at a crab shack, having lost all recollection of the project; and Walter has gone off the grid.

Over the course of several episodes, which dispense clues in a steady drip, we learn that the Homecoming center, despite its many job placement seminars and social skills workshops, was never meant to help soldiers adapt to life back in America. It was, instead, designed as the setting for a secret drug trial. Geist started the center as a place to administer and observe the effects of an experimental new drug on a group of veterans, who had no knowledge of the program’s real purpose. Hidden in the cafeteria food, the drug is supposed to erase their memories of war and leave them trauma-free, so that they can be sent back into battle. Heidi’s part in all this was to check that those memories had disappeared, so Geist could closely measure the drug’s effectiveness. Instead of treating veterans, Homecoming aimed to force them back into endless war.

Heidi’s boss, Colin, is relatively untroubled by the scheme. We watch his conversations with his Lady Macbeth–like wife (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), who encourages him to stay the course—not so much in a spirit of moral support, but because she realizes that he will need to manage his guilt if he is ever going to move up the corporate ladder at Geist and impress the Big Pharma powers that be. But Heidi is much more conflicted. In their therapy sessions, she and Walter bond over dreams of going on a road trip to California together—it might be a romantic fantasy, but it could just as easily be escapism. Both desperately need a way out of a punishing system.

How did someone so apparently kind and decent end up in this work to begin with? The show slowly reveals Heidi’s trajectory toward Geist: how, after a long string of nothing jobs, she decides that she wants to become a social worker; how after completing her degree she is so desperate to find work in her field (not an easy task for a middle-aged woman with zero experience) that she leaps at the opportunity to work for a big corporation, even though Geist’s methodology is unorthodox and potentially illegal. She convinces herself that she is helping these men; she has to. That is how complicity works.

In the podcast, Keener played Heidi with a note of sardonic detachment in her voice, a quality that Roberts doesn’t emulate. She’s too naturally warm to play the role with that sort of distance. And yet, there is something about Roberts’s million-dollar smile that makes Heidi even more tragic on screen. In her therapy sessions, she is as magnetic and affable as Roberts has ever been; she draws out her patients’ war memories simply by allowing her eyes to crinkle. And yet, years later, when she meets a Department of Defense investigator who is looking into malfeasance at Homecoming, she turns dogged, intent on uncovering her own role in a rotten system. Here, Roberts plucks the Erin Brockovich chord; she is steely and immovable in the face of corporate wrongdoing. This is her first major television role, and I understand why she took it: It allows her to do the two things she does best—to deploy her killer charm and to bare her teeth against an adversary.

It makes sense that, directed by Sam Esmail, Homecoming would borrow some of its eeriness from the aesthetics of Silicon Valley. Esmail’s aim, as seen in his show Mr. Robot, is to expose the creepiness in capitalism. In his worldview, individuals are rarely to blame for society’s ills; more often they are unwitting pawns in a chess game playing out on a scale they will never comprehend. Heidi’s story is much the same: She is but a cog in a huge military-industrial wheel that must keep spinning and producing new bodies to put on the front lines.

This doesn’t mean that her story is not one full of personal grief. Heidi torpedoes the lives of many people—not least Walter. Although they grow close and she fantasizes about leaving with him, she ends up instead roping him into a harmful and potentially life-threatening situation (which I won’t spoil here). Her quest for her own redemption is both noble and a bit pathetic. Roberts is particularly effective when she is trudging through a hopeless situation—her mouth can twist into a high-wattage grin, but also a devastating grimace. No matter what kind of forgiveness individual patients might grant her, she still helped implement a program that manipulated dozens of men and sent them back into the line of fire—and she knows this. She presses on anyway.

If this sounds depressing, well, it is. What Homecoming does so effectively is bring to light often-overlooked aspects of America’s wars. Walter tells Heidi that what depressed him most during his deployment wasn’t the combat, but the long hours of surreal boredom that caused him to disassociate; none of his experience felt real, and it certainly didn’t feel necessary. And perhaps this is what Geist’s medicine is really trying to erase: not his bloodiest memories but his most banal ones, the moments when he came to question the justification for fighting halfway across the world at all. It may be easy for everyone else at home to forget about all this, the show emphasizes: Its central figure is not a soldier or a politician, but a woman in Tampa who cannot even fully grasp the extent of her involvement.

In one of the show’s later episodes, Heidi’s mother (Sissy Spacek) tells her daughter, “They kept you busy down there, but whenever we did talk, you know how you sounded? Happy. Just brimming.” Heidi was happiest, her mother tells her, when she was exploiting the corrupt system for her own advancement, when she could convince herself that her ambition was more important than the well-being of others. This is almost more than Heidi can bear. She so wants to do the right thing, to unshatter the lives she touched. But Roberts, who holds this moment with riveting stillness, eventually just nods. She knows that she was happy in her ignorance, and she was happy while walking through the plush Geist hallways, which look so smooth and inviting at first, but in time grow claustrophobic and sinister. This is the ultimate effect of the menacing midcentury aesthetic; first it lulls you, then it traps you. Much like any system that seems too orderly, it is roiling with chaos underneath.

In the end, Heidi wants her mother to tell her what she should do, now that her part in Homecoming has been exposed. Spacek sighs, and looks straight ahead. “Go to work,” she answers. And while her job at the crab shack brings daily indignities, her mother’s message is clear. The best we can do is try to get through it and make amends where we can. We have to keep going to work and coming home.