In the 1970s, conspiracy thrillers such as “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and “Three Days of the Condor” captured the mood of the Watergate era. Now, a batch of new television dramas are exploring the issues unsettling society today—from technological unease to pervasive surveillance to the questioning of truth—with characters who struggle to maintain a grip on reality.
In the Amazon series “Homecoming,” which begins streaming on Friday, Julia Roberts plays a case worker treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. That story line alternates with one set four years in the future, when her government-funded program, called Homecoming, is under investigation. Ms. Roberts’s character, living with her mother (Sissy Spacek), has to search her memories, or lack of them, to piece together how the experiment went sideways.
TV’s new takes on the conspiracy genre are often clinical, featuring protagonists who find themselves in eerie institutions, questioned by therapists and navigating psychotic breaks.
In “Maniac,” starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, and released by Netflix last month, lab patients go on surreal mental journeys to free themselves from past traumas. The FX series “Legion” immerses viewers in the hallucinatory perspective of Dan Stevens’s character, who mistakes his emerging mutant powers for schizophrenia.
In Showtime’s “Homeland,” a bipolar counterterrorism agent played by Claire Danes sometimes confuses paranoia for gut intuition. She has been hospitalized multiple times throughout the show, which is scheduled to end next year after its eighth season.
Sam Esmail, the executive producer and director of “Homecoming,” also created one of TV’s more mind-bending examples of this subgenre in “Mr. Robot.” The USA series, now prepping its fourth and final season for next year, revolves around a computer hacker (Rami Malek, who won an Emmy for his performance) who perceived himself to be at the center of a global corporate plot. He, along with the audience, has to constantly gauge how much of his cataclysmic worldview is real.
Mr. Esmail says a fear of entrapment plagues the characters in both his shows, including a veteran at the center of the “Homecoming” mystery (played by Stephan James) who is initially trusting of his treatment regimen. “They’re in a box, but that box is in a bigger box,” Mr. Esmail says.
That sense that reality is slipping away is something he thinks resonates with viewers disturbed by the spread of misinformation and erosion of privacy.
“It feels subconscious, but there is something about our relationship with the world around us that seems frayed, and more and more frayed, at least for me,” Mr. Esmail says.
“Homeland” executive producer Alex Gansa says the symbolism in the mental illness of Ms. Danes’s character has only sharpened in the years since the show’s debut in 2011.
“Even back then, 10 years after 9-11, we felt that her bipolar condition really mirrored what was happening in the United States in terms of how polarized the country had become. But that just pales in comparison to the way things are now.”
“Homecoming” initially was a podcast, released by Gimlet Media in 2016 and featuring a surprisingly star-studded cast. Catherine Keener, who was the first to sign on, played Heidi Bergman, the character Ms. Roberts portrays in the TV adaptation. Oscar Isaac was Mr. James’s audio counterpart as the troubled veteran, while David Schwimmer played a hard-charging company man who launched the Homecoming program (played on TV by Bobby Cannavale).
The podcast’s creators, Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, also wrote and executive-produced the TV adaptation. When Mr. Esmail signed on to direct it, he expanded the story for a different medium by drawing on the tense cinema of the 1970s. For example, most of the music in “Homecoming” is from that era, using scores borrowed from movies directed by Brian De Palma, Alan J. Pakula and John Carpenter.
Mr. Esmail developed the style for “Homecoming” with many of his “Mr. Robot” collaborators, including cinematographer Tod Campbell and production designer Anastasia White. They tried to create a world in which characters deal with incomplete information in settings that feel askew.
The octagonal office where Ms. Roberts conducts counseling sessions creates a fishbowl effect. “You can move the camera around and it always feels circular, like there’s no way out and anyone can look in,” Mr. Esmail says.
In an unusual visual technique, “Homecoming” uses standard widescreen shots during the scenes from the past—before the Homecoming program unravels—but narrows the frame to a square when the story flashes forward.
That adds a claustrophobic urgency to the therapist’s quest for facts, Mr. Esmail says: “Boxes within boxes.”
As a director, Mr. Esmail is known for that kind of unorthodox camera work, intentionally framing characters off-center or surrounded by odd spaces. “Sam would walk into a room and his first question would be, ‘Does the ceiling come off?’ because he wanted to shoot from above,” Mr. Bloomberg recalls.
“We want absolute control over how we design the shot,” Mr. Esmail says, especially for scenes of people in a facility designed for surveillance. “They’re under a microscope.”
Write to John Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org