‘Homecoming’ and ‘Russian Doll’ Explore Existential Half-Hour Journeys With Trippy Timelines

Both Amazon Prime’s “Homecoming” and Netflix’s “Russian Doll” provocatively play with the 30-minute format, cramming their existential journeys with confusing timelines and visual detail. But, thanks to binge watching, the two shows actually function like long movies, according to editors Rosanne Tan (“Homecoming”) and Laura Weinberg (“Russian Doll”).

In “Homecoming,” the ’70s-style conspiracy thriller from director Sam Esmail (“Mr. Robot”), social worker Heidi (Julia Roberts) tries to help troubled soldiers transition back to civilian life in one timeline (shot in a wide aspect ratio), while attempting to solve the strange mystery of her memory loss as a result of a nefarious plot in a future timeline (shot in a shorter aspect ratio). And, in “Russian Doll,” the black comedy from showrunner/star Natasha Lyonne, her self-absorbed software engineer, Nadia, repeatedly dies on her 36th birthday in a “Groundhog Day”-like loop, only to discover fellow traveler, Alan (Charles Barnett), also stuck in time.

“The 30-minute format was done as a slow burn,” said Tan. “Sam wanted it that way because it was adapted from a podcast [from Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg]. He shot it as one, long movie, and for us, that’s how we received footage. Finding the rhythm involved a lot of trial and error. And the tone is not a very cutty type of show. That’s Sam’s style and I had to keep that in mind.”

Episode 4 (“Redwood”), for which Tan has been Emmy-submitted, proved the most pivotal. Heidi’s therapy sessions with Walter (Stephan James) in 2018 result in a breakthrough, and they even experience a personal connection, which puts them both in danger at the top-secret occupational program. In 2022, Heidi, living with her mom (Sissy Spacek) and working as a waitress, copes with frustrating memory gaps, and is shocked to discover that she was hospitalized.

The opening, though, provided Tan with a creative opportunity to introduce how the mind-altering medication makes its journey to Homecoming. In a series of shots, the tropical red berry is harvested, processed, and shipped to the facility, where its delivered inside in a long, continuous take. “Two months after cutting from the boxes and changing location and getting to the end with the title card popping, I received the medication footage and had to figure out how to do this as a story,” Tan said. “I tried out all kinds of things and ended up doing split-screen. It worked out and Sam liked the way it [connected] to the episode.”

Key to Esmail’s method was using music cues from classic thriller/horror movies (which proved a licensing challenge for music supervisor Maggie Phillips). Esmail wanted Lalo Schifrin’s “The Amityville Horror” for the opening, and Tan found it a perfect match, particularly the swirling sound during the crunching of the berries. However, Tan and the other two editors (Justin Krohn and Franklin Peterson) scoured Spotify for the other choices, with Tan selecting, among others, Bernard Herrmann’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” as a result of its strange theremin sound when Heidi discovers the box with her belongings from Homecoming; Pino Donaggio’s “Carrie” (starring Spacek as an inside joke) during a bureaucratic nightmare for a Department of Defense investigator (Shea Whigham); and Gil Mellé’s “The Andromeda Strain” for a moment of dread when the cover-up starts to unravel for Heidi’s former supervisor (Bobby Cannavale).

“Every scene is a new puzzle,” Tan said. “The therapy session between Heidi and Walter cuts away to his flashback insert shots of the [IED] explosion, which is just another puzzle piece. And when she comes to visit him in his room and learns about a road trip, their relationship grows; she wants to help him and wants to know more. And the change in aspect ratios not only shows the different timelines but gives her a fuller picture when she’s in control or confines her space when she’s not in control.”