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For five weeks in the run up to Christmas, Gimlet Media treated us to Homecoming, their first fictional podcast. At a time when almost half of Americans are at least aware of the podcast as a concept, Gimlet have been cornering the market. Beginning in 2011 with a podcast on Startups, there are now 12 Gimlet series on topics as diverse as the internet and dating, all specialising in interview based, real life storytelling. Seen as the archetypal Gimlet story, or a good story for any podcast, tends to be too bizarre to be true, it seems fitting that they would start making up their own.
The series stars Catherine Keener as the personable, caring, but forgetful Heidi, who once worked as a therapist for an experimental rehabilitation programme for military veterans. David Schwimmer plays her absent, results orientated boss, Oscar Isaac and Babak Tafti her patients, while David Cross and Amy Sedaris complete the list of big names. As the series progresses, it seems the Homecoming initiative is not as well intentioned as it appears. Initially, the soldiers have their suspicions as to the authenticity of the Florida town in which they find themselves. These are soon remedied, though as the course of medication continues they become Joseph Frier (Tafti) appears to be forgetting certain key events. Years later, Heidi also has a hard time remembering exactly what her job description was.
That much of the plot revolves around recorded therapy sessions and phone calls adds to the conspiratorial intrigue of the show. That said, the plot seems a little flat. Characters are hastily shaded in, and any tension is cranked up just as quickly. The season finale paves the way for season two as it appears the rabbit hole is deeper than we initially would have thought.
Homecoming is not the first of its kind, as other fictional podcasts have been making their way up the iTunes charts. Though as Vanity Fair points out, it is perhaps the first to feature an all star ensemble cast. Another point made by Vanity Fair and others is that there apparently isn’t a name for this brave new genre. This seems an odd claim to make as the concept of a radio play is not new. That said, the combination of audio drama and Netflix style serialisation is a novel formula.
The notion of serialisation is a big deal in podcasts. In Gimlet’s case, some series have been running for over fifty episodes, and though each episode may concern a stand alone topic, presenter personalities and the dynamic between presenters, and producers, ensure a sense of continuity. Perhaps one of the weaknesses in Homecoming, is that this knowing familiarity has seeped in around the fringes. The ‘after hours’ segment, in which actors and behind the scenes staff dissect scenes from the preceding episode is one such example. These segments seem to feature as a narrative in themselves, particularly when Tafti recounts the improvisational urge to stand during a scene and make a visual statement in an audio format. In this way, Tafti, show creator Eli Horowitz (and his signed harmonica) become characters in a weird side-show. While gambits such as offering a signed Harmonica as a prize to attract new, paying members necessary evil, it feels as if this kind of built in analysis detracts from the main event.
Another issue is the show’s ‘authenticity.’ In the most interesting of the after hours segments, Horowitz tells us that viewers don’t freak out when watching films. There is never a moment where we wonder why there is a camera filming what is going on, or why a narrator is telling us something(?!) As to the decision to base a significant part of the show on phone calls and other plausibly recorded material, these sections are often the most conspicuous. Horowitz explains the inspiration came from Sorry, Wrong Number, a radio play based entirely on a series of increasingly desperate phone calls from a woman seeking information on her missing husband. Horowitz’s main criticism is that the calls are a little stagy.
Unfortunately, this criticism could be extended to many of Homecoming’s set pieces: Heidi and Colin (Schwimmer)’s conversations at cross purposes aren’t quite believable. More interesting are the scenes taking place in real time, which are beautifully edited by Serial sound engineer Mark Henry Phillips. When we are out and about moving with the characters is easily the most exciting listening experience. In one of Gimlet’s mandatory promotional shorts, Crimetown’s Zac Stuart Pontier describes listening to podcasts as watching “a movie playing on your eye lids.” Unfortunately, Homecoming is yet to reach such levels of immersion.
Featured Image Source – New York Times