'Homecoming' Season 2 Review: A Strong Cast Mostly Makes Up For A Muddled Season

In an overstuffed TV landscape, Homecoming season 1 felt like something special. Not only was it engrossing, quickly hooking you with its mysteries, but it also stood out from the crowd thanks to its unique visual style – employing different aspect ratios to better illustrate time differences – and the way it employed music cues from films like All the President's MenKluteBody Double, and many more. You could argue that it was all nothing more than a gimmick, but it worked exceedingly well.

Then there's Homecoming season 2, which has itself a new director, a new lead, and, sadly, none of the spark and flair that made the first season so eye-catching. It's a handsomely mounted season of TV, sure – but it's lacking in distinction.

First thing's first: don't let the new leading lady and new director fool you into thinking Homecoming season 2 is a completely new tale that doesn't need the context of season 1. Original star Julia Roberts may be gone, but Homecoming season 2 very much remains an on-going story. Step into this world uninitiated and you're bound to get lost.

Season 1 followed multiple storylines stretched across multiple timelines, but primarily focused on the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a live-in facility for vets run by the Geist Group. It all looked on-the-level, and the veterans were fed a story as to why they were there. But little did they know they were being used as human lab rats, with Geist using them to test memory-erasing drugs. During that first season we followed the stories of Heid Bergman (Julia Roberts), a caseworker at Homecoming, and Walter Cruz (Stephan James), one of the soldiers being experimented on. The season wrapped on a somewhat hopeful note, but hinted at strange things to come.

Which brings us to season 2. Wasting no time, this new season begins in mystery, with a woman waking up in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. She has no memory of who she is, or how she got there. It's not the easiest of roles – by default it requires us to know as little as possible about this person – but thankfully, new lead Janelle Monáe is up to the task. Monáe has a natural charisma akin to old school movie stars, and watching as she attempts to piece together her own identity is never short of fascinating.

Her investigation eventually leads her to Geist Headquarters, and Audrey Temple (Hong Chau), a former Geist secretary who has managed to rise – extremely quickly – to an executive position. Chau, a brief presence in the first season, gets to shine in season 2, making Audrey sympathetic even when she's being ruthless to climb the corporate ladder.

Also lurking around the Geist building: Leonard Geist (Chris Cooper), the company's founder who clearly has no idea what has been going on with Homecoming. Cooper appears to be channeling his character from Adaptation here – all scruffy, working-class energy balled up inside a curious mind. It's not the juiciest of parts, but the season could use more of him.

Homecoming season 1 was mysterious from the jump, but since we were completely uninitiated into this world, those mysteries never grew tiresome. The same can't be said here – we already have a good idea as to what the hell is going on, which makes things extra frustrating when the series decides to suddenly hit the brakes and jump back in time to fill in some blanks.

Forging his own visual identity, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez abandons the paranoid thriller cues season 1 director Sam Esmail loved throwing around. The same goes for the '70s movie needle drops, all of which are replaced by a traditional score. It's understandable that Alvarez would want to do something of his own instead of aping Esmail's style, but removing these nuances makes Homecoming season 2 feel too pedestrian; too...well...normal. The series has lost its sense of identity, and while that may seem ironic for a show about people losing their memories, it still makes for a disappointing viewing.

Things begin to pick up when Walter Cruz re-enters the story, grappling to find out what happened to him at Homecoming. James' performance is intense and frantic, and while it's great to watch Monáe in the lead, I found myself wishing the second season had elevated Walter Cruz to its lead character, and spent more time with him and his fractured mind.

Homecoming season 2 finally finds its groove as it nears its conclusion, but getting there is such a tepid journey that there's little reward. As wonderful as the actors are here – and they truly are wonderful across the board – Homecoming season 2 fails to remember what made the first season so exciting.