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Janelle Monae Gets Series Lead Debut In Season 2 Of Amazon Prime's 'Homecoming'


The Grammy-nominated singer Janelle Monae has her first TV series lead role. It's in the new season of Amazon Prime Video's drama "Homecoming." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is up next. He says Monae's episodes, which debut today, are entertaining, just not quite as groundbreaking as the show's first season.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: OK. This may sound like a cliche, but nothing is truly as it first seems in the early episodes of "Homecoming's" second season. It starts with Monae's character waking up, no memory of who she is, eventually struggling to explain herself to an emergency room doctor.


JOHNNY SNEED: (As Dr. Zamani) What is your address?

JANELLE MONAE: (As Jackie) I don't - I don't know.

SNEED: (As Dr. Zamani) OK. How about your birthday? What's your birthday.

MONAE: (As Jackie) I don't know.

SNEED: (As Dr. Zamani) All right. Do you mind taking off your coat? I want to listen to your breathing.

DEGGANS: But when he sees signs of an injection in her arm, things go south.


SNEED: (As Dr. Zamani) Are you an IV drug user.

MONAE: (As Jackie) No.

SNEED: (As Dr. Zamani) You here for meds? Is that it?

MONAE: (As Jackie) No.

SNEED: (As Dr. Zamani) Wait right here, please.

DEGGANS: She doesn't wait right there. Instead, she enlists help from a cranky bystander, who actually was trying to get drugs under false pretenses, to figure out who she really is.


MONAE: (As Jackie) I woke up in a boat. If I did something wrong, I have no idea what it is.

JOHN BILLINGSLEY: (As Buddy) OK, hey, fine, Jesus. I'm not accusing you, OK, of anything. How'd you end up in a boat?

MONAE: (As Jackie) That's what I just said. I don't know.

BILLINGSLEY: (As Buddy) OK. Got it. Got it.

DEGGANS: "Homecoming's" second season is a puzzle box where events viewers discover midway through the season completely change the story, revealing that characters you thought you knew are actually very different people. Here's all you need to know about "Homecoming's" first season to understand the new episodes. The story centers on the Geist Group, the same company which operated a facility in "Homecoming's" debut season. Julia Roberts played a therapist who had a very specific job.


JULIA ROBERTS: (As Heidi Bergman) The facility housed 18 soldiers at a time. We use their medical records to find men who had basic PTSD markers. We delivered the medication to see if the memories were deleted.

DEGGANS: That's right. They were dosing veterans with a mystery drug which removed memories, including those causing post-traumatic stress disorder. This season, Chris Cooper plays the head of Geist, who didn't know about this Homecoming program. He calls for answers from the executive who ran it, a smooth-talking corporate weasel played by Bobby Cannavale.


BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) Facts could be easily twisted...

CHRIS COOPER: (As Leonard Geist) Were you dosing these guys and lying to them about it?

CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) What?

HONG CHAU: (As Audrey Temple) The protocol we outlined was based on topical use. But when you weren't getting results, you insisted that it be ingested.

COOPER: (As Leonard Geist) What? They were drinking it?

CHAU: (As Audrey Temple) Actually...

COOPER: (As Leonard Geist) No. You, answer me.

CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) No. Technically, they were eating it.

COOPER: (As Leonard Geist) What happened to them?

CANNAVALE: (As Colin Belfast) To who?

COOPER: (As Leonard Geist) The men.

DEGGANS: "Homecoming's" story centers on how big business and big government use this memory-altering drug to exploit average people. Stephan James returns is a veteran whose quest to recover his memories threatens the Geist Group. And Monae does a great job in a role where she's often not speaking at all, chasing clues in scenes paced like classic Alfred Hitchcock thrillers like "Vertigo" and "Rear Window." It's a sure bet her character's memory issues are tied to Geist. The details add up to one of the trippiest plot twists on TV.

"Homecoming's" second season isn't as inventive as its first, in which every episode was directed by the TV auteur Sam Esmail, who played with flashbacks and the size of the screen in bold ways. This time around, Esmail's out of the director's chair, and the storytelling is a bit more conventional. This season of "Homecoming" feels like a quirky, stylish conclusion, a comfortably entertaining way to end an ambitious story that left a few too many questions unanswered from the first season. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.