Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot” is one of the most audacious, inventive TV dramas of this decade. It is also, well, a lot. It’s narratively and creatively maximalist, full of subplots, conspiracies, directorial triple back flips and twist upon baffling twist.
Esmail directs all 10 episodes of “Homecoming,” a cerebral thriller that arrives on Amazon Friday, but he didn’t write it; it’s the creation of Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. Visually and thematically, it plays like a lean, focused distillation of Esmail’s other series.
It has the cool tone, the paranoia, the visual flourishes, the mind-bending revelations. But these effects are concentrated on a single, intricate story, laid out in 10 swift and magnetic episodes.
In this case, less is very much more.
The plot, of which it is best to say little, involves the corporatization of government, a favorite subject of “Mr. Robot.” Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) has just started work as a counselor at the Homecoming center, a privately run facility for the reintegration of combat veterans, where she sees clients like Walter Cruz (Stephan James), a wry, good-natured veteran struggling with survivor’s guilt.
The Homecoming facility, set in a drab office park somewhere in Florida, is just there to help soldiers get on with life. You’ll quickly supply the “ … or is it?” yourself. In between sessions, Heidi fields hectoring calls from her boss, Colin Belfast (Bobby Cannavale), an executive for the Geist Group, the company running Homecoming. He is more interested in extracting “data” from the vets, for some unknown purpose, than helping them.
Esmail’s signature style leaps at you immediately: the god’s-eye overhead shots, the image composition that puts you productively off-balance, the screen titles bigger than your living room.
But the abundance of style serves the substance, creating an atmosphere of room-tone menace. Everything about the Homecoming center is bland and minimalist — “hip but masculine,” Colin calls the décor — and “Homecoming” understands that anonymous spaces, euphemism and depersonalized corporate-speak can be more terrifying than any jump scare.
The most striking visual choice is the screen itself. The Homecoming scenes, set in 2018, are presented in typical wide-screen format. A second story line, four years in the future, is set off by black bars that squeeze the frame claustrophobically.
In this future, Heidi is living with her mother (Sissy Spacek) and waiting tables at a dump of a restaurant. A customer, Thomas Carrasco (Shea Whigham) identifies himself as an auditor from the Department of Defense, investigating a complaint about Homecoming. Sorry, Heidi tells him; she has no memory of ever working there.
In an age of streaming-TV bloat, “Homecoming” is five efficient hours, about 30 minutes per episode. It manages to be deliberative and propulsive at the same time. It builds momentum even as the first few episodes may seem to meander, and it comes together in a suspenseful thriller with an emotional punch.
The series is adapted from a podcast by Horowitz and Bloomberg, which presented its story in a telegraphic, found-audio format: phone conversations, taped counseling sessions, voice messages. This version finds a TV correlative for that approach, constructing itself largely as a series of conversations.
Its heart is the sessions between Cruz and Heidi, who develop a warm, work-spouse relationship. Roberts harks back here to her crusader-whistleblower roles (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Pelican Brief”), but with a reserved, layered performance. Heidi needs to work and wants to do good, and she realizes, with slowly dawning horror, that those aims are in conflict.
Cannavale breathes pushy life into Colin, who’s introduced as a stressed-out voice in split-screen phone conversations. Even when he interacts with other principals in the flesh, he’s basically a human Bluetooth headset, a mouthy, Mametian bulldozer spewing coach-speak: “Heidi, you are killing it! Fist bump!”
James and Whigham are also impressive in more understated roles. James brings an easy charisma to a character who’s designed to be a puzzle. And Whigham (the blustery Eli in “Boardwalk Empire”), as an introvert more at home digging through file folders than confronting suspects, makes a terrific hero-nerd.
It takes a bureaucrat, after all, to uncover a crime of bureaucracy, if that’s what’s afoot here. Like the tech-focused “Mr. Robot,” “Homecoming” is about the relation of individuals to corrupted systems. It may only take one villain to conceive an ill deed, but when it’s legitimized through the machinery of government and business, it becomes the work of many hands, like Heidi’s.
Often those people do what the soldiers treated at Homecoming do: They repress; they deflect; they crate up their feelings in a box. They tell themselves what Heidi’s mother tells her: “People make compromises. You did what you had to do. You took a job.”
Part of what “Homecoming” asks is: How responsible do you have to be for a thing before you’re morally responsible for it? How high up in an organization?
In “Homecoming,” business is war by other means. And beyond its slickness and deft puzzle-story twists, this series is a perceptive study of the collateral damage.