Maniac is the most captivating show of the fall season, in that you don’t know for one second what the hell is going on, so you’re constantly paying close attention.
It’s brilliant in that way. And it’s one of those shows that likes to think it’s brilliant in that way. (It’s insufferable in that way.)
Is a show that thinks it’s smart actually smart? Sometimes. At least in the case of Netflix's Maniac, it mostly is. But that doesn’t make the ride any less bumpy or long. This is 2018, the age of “it gets good after episode six” and “you have to watch the whole thing.” We love ourselves a laborious show.
The number of times we replayed certain scenes! To catch a line we were sure was important, to be certain we understood a new plot development, and to track each memory-alt-reality-fantasy-dream-delusion-flashback-hallucination narrative. It’s about time someone said it: Bingeing is exhausting!
The fact that Maniac is so strange is the best thing about it. And, folks, it’s hella strange.
But for once, it’s a pleasure for a show to be this narratively ambitious, at a time when production value and budget routinely seem to usurp story development. (Not that Maniac’s deranged alternate past-future—couldn’t say which it’s meant to be—lacks in scope, detail, or cost.) There is a palpable determination in the show’s loopy, provocative world-building and a heartbreaking honesty to its depiction of mental illness.
Maniac raises unanswerable questions: What is real? What is the purpose of pain? Are we OK? But it doesn’t simply let them linger like an existential cloud, casting a menacing shadow as we ponder. It sets out to really answer those questions, through the only way they could possibly be settled: through utter chaos.
That said, watching Maniac is very annoying. That seems to be the point, even if unintentionally.
Series creator Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers), director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), and stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone seem to view testing the audience’s tolerance for ambiguity as an experiential mirror to the story they’re attempting to tell.
Hill plays Owen, the black sheep of a high-society New York family who is haunted by paranoia, delusions, and visions of his slick older brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) sending him on “spy missions.” When he loses his job, he opts to participate in a paid drug trial for which he’s sold as a “hero candidate” because of his mental illness instead of cashing a check at the family bank.
Also in the trial is Annie, Stone’s character, an addict who has never recovered from the trauma of her sister dying in a car accident while she was driving. She’s in the trial to score access to one of its experimental pills, which forces its users to recall in vivid detail the worst moment of their life. Annie likes it because the pill at least lets her spend time with her sister, even if it’s the day that she died.
The trial is run with reckless abandon by rival doctors played by Rome Kanda and Justin Theroux. Its goal, as a narrator explains, is to “eradicate all unnecessary and inefficient forms of human pain forever.” It requires that test subjects take three pills in order to diagnose, confront, and cure the causes of their mental illness. To do so, the pills engage the subjects in computer generated simulations—sometimes memories, sometimes simulations, sometimes neither—in which they are entirely different people.
In a fluke, or perhaps fate, Owen and Annie’s simulations become poignantly intertwined.
The sci-fi stuff is great, bizarre, and impossible to pinpoint—the throwback tech resembles that of the late ‘80s, yet is advanced beyond our current times and carries social ramifications that are practically dystopian. There’s a computer with enough emotional intellect to have depression. Justin Theroux has virtual-reality sex with a video game character. Sally Field plays a celebrity whose success is built on self-help books. And, of course, there is the ethicless drug trial with lethal test runs operating without oversight but with the promise to cure All Pain.
Owen is obsessed with the idea that what’s real is “the only thing that matters,” which is a delicious middle finger to the viewer about to spend an entire season of television wondering if anything they’re watching is real.
Everything—the trial, the computer generations, Annie—could be made up, one of Owen’s delusions. The suspicion that this could be the case lingers like a constant itch, a creative annoyance through the entire viewing experience, which is both profound and ridiculous. I loved watching this series and hated every second of it. Best of/worst of 2018. Genius. Nonsense. That extremism is wonderful, irritating, an endorsement, a caution, and perhaps entirely the point.
It’s the cleverest sleight of hand we’ve witnessed a big #PeakTV entry play. There’s the pedigree and production value of this show. The tone is so purposefully trippy. The narrative is so existentially ambiguous. Every baffling moment, peculiar diversion, and teeth-gritting resistance to the instinct to give up watching entirely is in pursuit of the expected payoff in the end, the proof of substance and catharsis of brilliance.
That this does not, in fact, happen is at once a cruel troll, inevitable, and also a bit of a relief. What could possibly live up to a set-up this richly weird? But also, did we maybe just waste our time? Who could say!
The thing is, for all our joking about the exasperation of suspecting that each detail mattered, each detail actually matters. Few shows are laid out this intricately or methodically, and the callbacks as the series progresses are gratifying and worth the effort of paying attention. (The greatest tragedy of #PeakTV: the assumption that all television is backdrop.)
This goes for Fukunaga’s winking, sumptuous direction; Stone and Hill’s challenging, ultimately miraculous performances; and Somerville’s tangled scripts. The process of uncoiling the knots might piss you off, but achieving it in the end feels like an accomplishment. Even if the achievement ends up being not as profound as you thought it might be.
Emma Stone, whose performance in La La Land might be one of the most ludicrous Oscar-winning turns we’ll look back on, has never been better than in this role. Her excellence has typically been associated with gumption. (To the extent that we’d venture her Oscar was for the obvious work she put into La La Land rather than the product itself.) But as Annie, her famous saucer eyes are framed by dark circles, a weariness. She’s tired, not plucky. She’s not someone looking for life, but someone who’s lived it, and has been beaten down by it.
The various versions of her id she plays in the computer-generated flashbacks—the Long Island housewife, the ‘40s femme fatale, the drunken Narnia elf—are shrewd channels for her theater-camp broadness and goofiness, enriched by the pathos she brings to each. One monologue in particular, delivered in a Volvo with a bleached perm, might be the best acting she’s done to date.
Theroux and Field turn in riotously daffy performances, which are then grounded by Hill doing his most sedate and, in turn, most affecting work yet. And that’s the thing. As wild and big as things become in Maniac, there’s an undercurrent of visceral, unshakable humanity that keeps you not only engrossed, but personally invested. Will this trial be worth it? Will they be cured? Can we possibly get rid of the pain and, more, should we?
For the trial participants, there’s both a tinge of desperation to find out and a resignation to the fact that, in the end, it probably doesn’t matter. Maybe the same can be said for the search for meaning or even pleasure in this show.