I’d like to file a complaint with whoever called Maniac, Netflix’s 2018 10-episode Hidden Gem Sci-Fi Series. Yes, I realize it’s loosely based on a Norwegian series of the same name, but I think the title has stuck with me for far too long from the show. The title Maniac is also that of an unrated 1980 slasher film with an infamously creepy poster showing a serial killer holding a bloody scalp and no no no I’m not looking at that.
This maniac doesn’t go there. It’s a psychological sci-fi series that mixes laughter and tears, has a stacked star cast (Jonah Hill! Emma Stone! Sally Field! Julia “Ozark” Garner!) and one of the most twisted and complex plots I’ve ever seen seen a while. And its ending, with a development reminiscent of The Graduate, lifted me up and made me feel that maybe, just maybe, these two super-quirky people I’ve grown fond of have a future.
Let’s start at the beginning. Maniac came out in 2018 and was well-reviewed at the time, but I kind of missed it completely. It’s set in a parallel universe of New York City that’s recognizable enough, but littered with just enough weird Black Mirror-style sci-fi developments to keep things interesting.
For one, New York now boasts what is known as a Statue of Extra Liberty. There’s a company called AdBuddy that will buy you things in exchange for letting a person sit next to you and read you ads (the pop-up ads from hell). There’s a thing called the A-void pod, almost like a doghouse for people where those fed up with the world can just get away from it all. A concept called FriendProxy allows you to hire fake friends. These things aren’t always thoroughly explained, they just exist and viewers may or may not figure them out on the fly.
Jonah Hill plays Owen Milgrim (yes, a reference to the Milgram experiment, a famous psychological experiment in which people simply followed orders even when they thought they were going to hurt others). He struggles with schizophrenia, which isn’t helped by his horrible, wealthy family, who want him to stand on the witness stand in his monstrous brother’s upcoming sexual assault trial. Emma Stone plays Annie Landsberg, who suffers from borderline personality disorder. Annie suffered a terrible family loss in her past and, like Owen, is a broken person living in a broken future world.
Owen and Annie enroll as guinea pigs in a major pharmaceutical company’s study of a drug designed to end human suffering. One of the steps to doing this is taking a pill (called the A pill) that will bring you back to the most painful event in your life. Whoo boy. Getting ads sprayed in someone’s face on the subway is one thing, but going back to the most devastating moment of your life is quite another.
The A pill is only part of the test. The B pill sends its users into fully realized other lives where they could be scammers or a married couple looking for a lemur (it makes sense in context). The C-Pill offers more hallucinatory alternate lives, including a hobby half-elf life for Annie, and throws Owen into a bloody gangster family.
All of these branching and wandering plots make Maniac the kind of show you need to pay close attention to. If you’re distracted by scrolling through your phone, you’ll suddenly glance at the screen and wonder if you accidentally sat on the remote and jumped to a Sopranos episode or Lord of the Rings-like movie.
But if you can stay focused – and 10 episodes is a big commitment – Maniac rewards its engaged viewers. Stone and Hill are intriguing and backed by an outstanding cast including Field, Theroux and Garner.
Theroux (in a disturbingly messy wig) is Dr. James Mantleray hilariously funny. His character was fired from drug testing administration but is brought back out of desperation. (Sonoya Mizuno’s Dr. Azumi Fujita shines as his chain-smoking partner.) It turns out that Mantleray’s mother is famous therapist Dr. Greta Mantleray is and her voice and personality were programmed into GRTA, the computer on which the experiment is based. Family trauma, be it for scientists or drug trial participants, is also part of this show, as are the futuristic inventions that make Annie and Owen’s world a little unnerving.
Maniac is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who you may know as the director of the latest Bond film. no time to die, and who won an Emmy for directing the first season of True Detective. And if you’re a fan of True Detective or The OA or the last ones supernatural steamboat series 1899You will probably find Maniac fascinating.
But it’s not for everyone. I can absolutely see where some viewers will get impatient as the show spends entire episodes wandering through the different lives that Owen and Annie lead while under the influence of drugs. It could easily have been a five-episode series instead. Still, I felt like I’d dug up lost treasure from the Netflix vault. Stone and Hill and their strange, wild world will stay with me for a long time.
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