It’s been a frustrating month for experiments in genre television. Both The Consultant, a Prime Video thriller, and Hello Tomorrow!, a sci-fi drama on Apple TV+, are trying to tell complex stories with seasons of half-hour episodes. That’s an admirable effort to counter the bloated runtimes of similar shows, but both are thwarted by the demands of building a complex, dramatic narrative in small segments. It’s almost enough to assume that it just can’t be done with genre series. Except that five years ago, it was. The problems of both recent misfires only reinforce what was so great about the first season of Homecoming.
Created for Prime Video by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg, Homecoming is a mystery that’s designed to pique our curiosity instead of jangle our nerves. For instance, most of Season 1, Episode 1 follows therapist Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) having sessions with a soldier named Walter Cruz (Stephan James) in a top-secret institution. It ends, however, with a flashforward to Heidi waitressing at a dingy dockside restaurant. A detective arrives to ask her questions, but she insists she doesn’t remember her time with the soldiers at all. “What about the name Walter Cruz?” he asks. “Do you remember him?” Shrieking violins play under this question, priming us for a shocking response. But then the music stops altogether, and Heidi simply says, “No.” It’s a flat statement, without implied exclamation points or ironic quotation marks. Then she walks inside, and the credits roll.
And in case that’s not disorienting enough, the screen doesn’t cut to black when the credits begin. Instead, the camera lingers on the restaurant for almost a minute. We hear seagulls chirping and waves lapping. We see boats bobbing in the water. We might scour the screen for clues, or wait for Heidi to run back out with some important piece of evidence, but nothing else happens. We’re left to contemplate the scene, to sit with the mystery of Heidi’s apparent amnesia.
Every episode is like this, with the sudden conclusions and the lingering credits image. Sam Esmail, who executive produced and directed the entire first season, said he wanted the segments to end this way specifically because they were 30 minutes long. “When you’re doing something where there’s a lot of suspense and tension, I think that [length] is the tool,” he told IndieWire. “We wanted to end before the audience is expecting it to.” Indeed, Homecoming feels taut because it doles out just enough information to advance the story, but never so much that it pummels viewers with “dramatic” events.
Meanwhile, The Consultant, which premieres February 24, unleashes a lurid avalanche. The story of a sinister business consultant named Regus Patoff (Christoph Waltz), it ends all 10 of its half-hour installments with a shocking reveal. Sometimes the employees of the gaming company where Patoff works discover a hidden room full of secrets, and sometimes he pushes one of them to commit unspeakable acts, all in the name of corporate efficiency. But because the episodes are so brief, the series rushes from one jaw-dropper to the next, never building suspense or letting the characters properly respond to whatever grotesque thing just happened. It’s like plummeting down the roller coaster without the satisfaction of slowly climbing up.
In its eagerness to deliver shock after shock, The Consultant also leaves stories underwritten. A woman gets brainwashed by Patoff’s manipulations, but then just snaps out of it, never to be bothered again. All of the employees are required to take off their shoes before entering the office, but that detail leads nowhere. The first season of Homecoming, on the other hand, is always focused on one thing — revealing the true nature of the facility where Heidi worked. Because they concentrate on a single plot, the 30-minute installments have more than enough time to go deep. Nothing feels rushed, and while certain story elements might remain mysterious, nothing feels half-finished.
Compare this to Apple TV+’s Hello Tomorrow!, about a con man selling timeshares on the moon. The show, which airs new episodes through April 7, is beautiful but superficial, and that’s partly because it crams so many plots into its half hours. While that con man, played by Billy Crudup, is selling those timeshares, he’s also trying to build a relationship with his estranged son, deal with his hectoring mother, and navigate a partnership with a con woman who swears she can make them rich. There are also sagas about other characters that could easily fill 30 minutes on their own, not to mention asides about the space-age technology that all the characters use. Instead of exploiting the potential of a compressed, dramatic narrative, Hello Tomorrow! behaves like a sprawling, hour-long show that somehow got stuck with a short running time.
Or to put it another way, Hello Tomorrow! is the wrong length, while Homecoming knows what to do with the constraints of its format. Or at least it does in Season 1. The show’s second season, about a new soldier (Janelle Monae) trying to bring down the company behind those experiments, is much more pedestrian than the first. There aren’t many questions to be answered, just vengeful deeds to be committed, and that’s far less enticing than a shadowy mystery. But just like this year’s faltering series, that bum season highlights how special Homecoming’s first season really is. It may not be the only excellent half-hour genre drama, but it sets the bar awfully high for newcomers.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.