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The Surreal World: TV Delves Into Paranoia, Anxiety and Misinformation

Julia Roberts stars in the new Amazon series 'Homecoming,' about an experimental program for veterans readjusting to civilian life.
Julia Roberts stars in the new Amazon series ‘Homecoming,’ about an experimental program for veterans readjusting to civilian life. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

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.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone star in the Netflix series ‘Maniac.’
Jonah Hill and Emma Stone star in the Netflix series ‘Maniac.’ Photo: Netflix

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.

In ‘Legion’ on FX, Dan Stevens plays David Haller, a man who mistakes his emerging powers for schizophrenia.
In ‘Legion’ on FX, Dan Stevens plays David Haller, a man who mistakes his emerging powers for schizophrenia. Photo: FX

“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.

‘Homecoming’ director Sam Esmail, left, behind the scenes with actor Bobby Cannavale.
‘Homecoming’ director Sam Esmail, left, behind the scenes with actor Bobby Cannavale. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

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 john.jurgensen@wsj.com

More in TV

Simone Biles Just Dominated the World Championship Qualifiers—After a Trip to the E.R.

Simone Biles is nothing if not an absolute legend and national treasure. Just two weeks ago, the Olympic gymnast did what no woman in a competition had ever done: successfully completed a Cheng vault with an additional half twist. To date, only men had executed this “roundoff onto the board and half turn onto the table…with only one and a half twists off” in competition. In other words, it’s freaking incredible. On Saturday, it was part of her qualifying routine at the world gymnastics championships in Doha, Qatar—and it was announced later in the day that the move would henceforth be named “The Biles.” But those huge wins weren’t without a bit of drama: Biles had gone to the hospital the night before (Friday) with a kidney stone, less than 24 hours before the championships.

Not that you’d know it: According to The Guardian, she “easily posted the top all-around score of 60.965” at the Saturday championships, showing the highest individual score on vault and floor, plus second on uneven bars in 5 of 11 qualifying groups. USA Today adds that that score was her highest since returning to competition after a year layoff. And yeah, she reportedly nailed that incredible vault.

According to USA Today, Biles said she’d been having back pain over a couple of weeks, and, recently, had also gotten stomach pains (though, she added dismissively, her stomach aches before a meet). On Friday, the pain was reportedly so bad that she was crawling, and joked about going to the hospital; luckily, her mom is a nurse. This world championships was her first in three years, and when she found out she had the stone, she reportedly grabbed her bag and left, saying she’d “deal with the pain later.”

She got back from the ER at 1 A.M. She also understandably passed on the morning’s practice.

“I’m trying not to move every time I do something just in case (the stone) moves,” she told USA Today. “Then I also hear roller coasters might help kidney stones, and I’m like my own roller coaster out there.”

Biles also reportedly did each of the four events all sans serious painkillers because of the sport’s doping rules.

And speaking of that vault, because she landed it in competition, it will officially be named “the Biles”, reports Deadspin.

One more reason to love her?

She apparently named her kidney stone “The Doha Pearl.”

The Doha Pearl.

2018 FIG Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Day Three

PHOTO: Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Simone Biles, the national treasure.

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Simone Biles Just Nailed a Gymnastics Move No Woman Has Ever Done Before

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Simone Biles Just Dominated the World Championship Qualifiers—After a Trip to the ER

Simone Biles is nothing if not an absolute legend and national treasure. Just two weeks ago, the Olympic gymnast did what no woman in a competition had ever done: successfully completed a Cheng vault with an additional half twist. To date, only men had executed this “roundoff onto the board and half turn onto the table…with only one and a half twists off” in competition. In other words, it’s freaking incredible. On Saturday, it was part of her qualifying routine at the world gymnastics championships in Doha, Qatar—and it was announced later in the day that the move would henceforth be named “The Biles.” But those huge wins weren’t without a bit of drama: Biles had gone to the hospital the night before (Friday) with a kidney stone, less than 24 hours before the championships.

Not that you’d know it: According to The Guardian, she “easily posted the top all-around score of 60.965” at the Saturday championships, showing the highest individual score on vault and floor, plus second on uneven bars in 5 of 11 qualifying groups. USA Today adds that that score was her highest since returning to competition after a year layoff. And yeah, she reportedly nailed that incredible vault.

According to USA Today, Biles said she’d been having back pain over a couple of weeks, and, recently, had also gotten stomach pains (though, she added dismissively, her stomach aches before a meet). On Friday, the pain was reportedly so bad that she was crawling, and joked about going to the hospital; luckily, her mom is a nurse. This world championships was her first in three years, and when she found out she had the stone, she reportedly grabbed her bag and left, saying she’d “deal with the pain later.”

She got back from the ER at 1 A.M. She also understandably passed on the morning’s practice.

“I’m trying not to move every time I do something just in case (the stone) moves,” she told USA Today. “Then I also hear roller coasters might help kidney stones, and I’m like my own roller coaster out there.”

Biles also reportedly did each of the four events all sans serious painkillers because of the sport’s doping rules.

And speaking of that vault, because she landed it in competition, it will officially be named “the Biles”, reports Deadspin.

One more reason to love her?

She apparently named her kidney stone “The Doha Pearl.”

The Doha Pearl.

2018 FIG Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Day Three

PHOTO: Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

Simone Biles, the national treasure.

Related Stories

Simone Biles Called Out USA Gymnastics President for an Anti-Kaepernick Tweet

Simone Biles Just Nailed a Gymnastics Move No Woman Has Ever Done Before

Simone Biles Made Gymnastics History in a Leotard Honoring Fellow Sexual Abuse Survivors

J.J. Abrams Was Really Nervous To Direct Leonard Nimoy In Star Trek

When the original Star Trek was given a movie franchise reboot, it featured a crew of fresh faces as familiar characters. Except when Leonard Nimoy surprised audiences and pleased longtime fans with an appearance as Spock Prime in 2009. When Nimoy returned to his role almost 20 years later in the directed J.J. Abrams‘ iteration, it seems the filmmaker had a “pinch me” moment whilst directing Spock himself.

Star Trek‘s Karl Urban recently shared a funny exchange between the two when they were filming Nimoy’s first take on the 2009 film in his words:

Not very many directors get get to be a part of the return of such an iconic role such as Spock, who committed many years to his character. Per Karl Urban’s story, it looks like J.J. Abrams was in his zone on the set of Star Trek, when he realized just who he was giving direction to. Leonard Nimoy played the Vulcan science officer for three seasons on Star Trek, before returning for six studio films as the character as well. He had more chances to add depth and explore his character over 25 years than one could ever imagine.

Karl Urban’s anecdote about the late Leonard Nimoy’s first day back as Spock after an almost 20-year gap without the character is one fans will certainly treasure. Urban, who has played Doctor McCoy in three Star Trek films talked about some of the amazing memories as part of the franchise at a Dallas Fan Days panel (via ComicBook.com). He remembers prior to the moment watching behind the scenes with J.J. Abrams as Nimoy took on the role again in amazement of his performance.

Leonard Nimoy played Spock one last time in Star Trek: Into Darkness before passing away in 2016 at 83 years old. He was remembered in 2016’s Star Trek: Beyond with a scene tributing him and the original space crew.

Star Trek would not be the last time J.J. Abrams directed actors returning to their most iconic roles years later. The filmmaker has also worked closely with the likes of Star Wars actors Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford to continue the Skywalker saga with Star Wars: The Force Awakens and has returned to direct Episode IX coming to theaters on December 20, 2019.

Classic Resident Evil Games Are Coming To Nintendo Switch

If you heard a loud squealing sound over the weekend, that was probably the collective noise of fans reacting to the news that Capcom is bringing a trio of Resident Evil games to the Switch next year. This collection includes some of the most beloved entries in the long-running zombie blast-a-thon, including the original Resident Evil, Resident Evil 0 and, yes, even Resident Evil 4.

Capcom took to social media this weekend to let everyone know that a trio of Resident Evil games is bound for the Switch, though no launch window was offered at the time more specific than “2019.” More information has been promised soon and, with Nintendo rumored to have two Direct video presentations scheduled for the month of November, we’ve got our fingers crossed that “soon” means “in just a few weeks.

Both Revelations games are already available on Nintendo’s Switch platform and, if you live in Japan, you can even play Resident Evil 7 on the console/portable hybrid. With these three upcoming games, that’ll make about half of the series’ full roster available on the Switch.

It seems like a safe bet that this announcement refers to the remastered versions of both Resident Evil and Resident Evil 0. The former was a big hit with fans while the latter could definitely use some more attention. As for Resident Evil 4, that’s the game pegged by many as being the absolute pinnacle for the series, striking a balance between the horror elements of the earlier series entries and the action elements that went on to dominate gameplay moving forward.

Part of Resident Evil 7‘s success could easily be attributed to the fact that it shed the over-the-top action of more recent entries in favor of scarcer resources, a more focused narrative, and genuinely spooky moments of gameplay. Using just a handful of locations and enemy types, Capcom was able to recapture that old-school charm the series hasn’t enjoyed in quite a few years while still shaking things up by shifting the perspective to first-person. That also allowed the game to be played in virtual reality on the PlayStation 4, which kicked the horror and immersion up to a whole extra level.

As for the three new Resident Evil games heading to the Switch, it seems like they’re all going to be safe bets and huge hits for Capcom. If you scroll through the comments following the Twitter announcement, you’ll find folks saying that this will be the umpteenth time they pick up Resident Evil 4 in particular which, again, speaks volumes for how much fans love the game.

Now for the big question: Will these be physical or digital releases? It’s so much easier for Capcom to launch the games as digital exclusives, but a lot of fans seem to be eager to get them on physical cartridges. We’ll just have to wait until the publisher finally breaks silence on those extra details.

How HBO Is Making Its Sex Scenes Safer

One of premium cable’s leading networks is altering how its sex scenes are handled on the set. HBO has announced that from now on, any of its TV series or movies, which feature sexually intimate scenes will have an “intimacy coordinator” involved, per Rolling Stone. So, what does this person do? The role of an intimacy coordinator is to mediate between the actors, directors, producers, and other crew members comprising a series.

Julia Roberts Got Emotional Watching Pretty Woman On Broadway

This year Julia Roberts celebrates an illustrious 30-year career as a Hollywood actress that started with her breakout role in 1988’s Mystic Pizza. But Roberts became a household name when she starred in the Cinderella story Pretty Woman about a prostitute named Vivian who falls in love with businessman Edward, played by Richard Gere. When the classic rom-com had its Broadway debut over the summer, the throwback musical served as a poignant reminder for Roberts. In her words:

Hand a symbolic tissue to Julia Roberts, because sounds like it was a bit of a rough watch for the actress. Garry Marshall was the director of Pretty Woman, and playbook co-writer for the Broadway version with the movie’s original screenwriter J.F. Lawton. Marshall died in 2016 at 81 years old, soon after working with Roberts on his last directorial project Mother’s Day. The pair also worked together on the rom-coms Runaway Bride and Valentine’s Day. In her cover interview for Entertainment Weekly, Roberts recalled a time when Marshall surprised her about the Broadway project her was working on during a lunch at her house.

Garry Marshall left a momentous mark on comedy television and film that started a a writer in ’60s with The Dick Van Dyke Show, continued in the ’70s and ’80s with The Odd Couple, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days. He then moved over to the director’s chair producing hits like Overboard, Beaches and The Princess Diaries movies. Putting perhaps his iconic movie on Broadway was one of the last things he worked on, though he never saw it completely come together in New York City.

The Broadway version of Pretty Woman stars Samantha Barks as Vivian, who was Les Misérables Éponine, and Tony-winning actor Steve Kazee who was previously in the Broadway version of Once. The inclusion of Pretty Woman on Broadway continues a string of musical adaptations of popular romantic comedies such as Mean Girls, Legally Blonde and the upcoming Clueless musical which will arrive late November. Considering Pretty Woman is still one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies ever, it was only a matter of time before Julia Roberts would see another iteration of her most iconic role.

While Julia Roberts began her career as a rom-com actress, she recently said her days with the genre are likely over as she continues to take on dramatic roles. Before the end of 2018, Roberts is starring in an Amazon original series Homecoming from the creator of Mr. Robot and in family drama Ben is Back. It all started with her role in Pretty Woman that wouldn’t have put her on the map without director Garry Marshall leading her through its production.

Here’s the Fallout 76 Beta Schedule

After a two-day break, everyone will be able to enjoy the beta’s second session beginning Oct. 30, running from 7 to 11 p.m. November kicks off with a slightly longer session, running from 2 to 7 p.m. After another two-day break, the whole thing comes to a close with a Nov. 3 session from 5 to 9 p.m. and an extended Nov. 4 session from 2 to 9 p.m. If you don’t get an opportunity to jump in during one or more of these trial runs, your next opportunity to explore the wasteland won’t come until the game finally launches on Nov. 14. That’s only a week before Battlefield V goes live and a little over two weeks after Red Dead 2‘s launch this past week so, yeah, it’s something of a crowded holiday season for games.

Looks Like The Birds Of Prey Movie Is Getting A New Title

The DC live-action universe has had a fascinating journey, and it’s still very much in its infancy. After Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel hit theaters, Warner Bros. went ahead with creating a shared universe for their characters to inhabit, and moved forward quickly both announcing and releasing projects. One blockbuster that seems to be actively developing is the Birds of Prey movie, which will unite Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn with other female heroes and villains.

The Birds Of Prey creative team is slowly being assembled, including cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who has worked in projects like Venom and A Star Is Born. In a recent interview, Libatique claimed that the movie might not be named after the iconic DC team, saying:

Well, that’s a plot twist. Considering that the upcoming movie has only been referred to as a Birds Of Prey movie, many fans thought it would be titled as much. But Matthew Libatique is part of the production team, and is therefore privy to more information than the rest of us plebeians.

Matthew Libatique’s recent comments to GMA News Online do make a great deal of sense, considering the cast that has been assembled for the Birds of Prey movie thus far. The upcoming female-fronted flick will be another vehicle for Margot Robbie’s beloved Harley Quinn, who made her debut in the less than stellar Suicide Squad. Since villains and law enforcement officers will also make up the film’s leading characters, it makes sense that a new title might be necessary.

Currently set to join Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, whether or not that’s the title, are a trio of DC vixens. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) is playing Bat-family member Helena Bertinelli / Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell (True Blood) will take on the role of Dinah Lance / Black Canary, and longtime TV and film star Rosie Perez will play GCPD officer Renee Montoya. The overall storyline is a complete mystery, but there’s going to be a variety of women staring in the movie.

The Birds of Prey movie is currently set to be directed by Cathy Yen, and the screenplay is being written by Christina Hodson (Unforgettable, Bumbebee). There’s already a ton of female talent attached to the project, which will likely help increase excitement about the upcoming blockbuster. The call for diverse female representation both in front and behind the camera has been a hot button of conversation in the past few years, with new ground being broke with projects like Wonder Woman, Netflix’s Jessica Jones, andCaptain Marvel.

Birds of Prey is currently set to arrive in theaters on February 7th, 2020. In the meantime, check out our 2019 release list to plan your trips to the movies in the New Year.