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I’d like to file a complaint with whoever named Maniac, a 10-episode hidden gem of a sci-fi series from 2018. Yes, I realize it’s loosely based on a Norwegian series of the same name, but the title kept me away for far too long. The title Maniac is also that of an unrated slasher film from 1980 with an infamously creepy poster showing a serial killer holding a bloody scalp, and no no no I am not watching that.
This Maniac on Netflix doesn’t go there. It’s a psychological sci-fi series that mixes laughs and tears, has a stacked cast of stars (Jonah Hill! Emma Stone! Sally Field! Julia “Ozark” Garner!) and one of the most twisty and complex plots I’ve watched in a while. And its ending, with a development that’s reminiscent of The Graduate, uplifted me, making me feel these two super-quirky people I’d grown fond of maybe, just maybe, had a future.
Let’s start at the beginning. Maniac came out in 2018, and was well-reviewed at the time, but I somehow missed it completely. It’s set in a parallel-universe New York City that’s recognizable enough, but dotted with just enough weird Black Mirror-style sci-fi developments to keep things interesting.
For one thing, New York now boasts something called the Statue of Extra Liberty. There’s a company called AdBuddy that buys you things in exchange for you letting a person just sit next to you and read you ads (the pop-up ad from hell). There’s a thing called an A-void pod, almost like a dog kennel for humans, where those who are sick of the world can just retreat from everything. A concept called FriendProxy lets you hire pretend friends. These things aren’t always scrupulously explained, they just kind of exist, and viewers figure them out on the fly, or don’t.
Jonah Hill plays Owen Milgrim (yes, a nod to The Milgram Experiment, a famous psychological experiment where people just followed orders, even if they thought they were hurting others). He’s struggling with schizophrenia, which isn’t helped by his horrible, wealthy family, who want him to lie on the stand in his monstrous brother’s upcoming sexual assault trial. Emma Stone plays Annie Landsberg, who has borderline personality disorder. Annie suffered a horrible family loss in her past and, like Owen, she’s a broken person living in a broken future world.
Owen and Annie sign up to be guinea pigs in a big pharmaceutical company’s trial for a drug that’s supposed to eliminate human suffering. One of the steps toward doing that involves taking a pill (called the A pill) that brings you back to the most painful event in your life. Hoo, boy. Letting someone spout ads in your face on the subway is one thing, but returning to your life’s most devastating moment is something else altogether.
The A pill is just a part of the test. The B pill sends its takers off into fully realized other lives, where they might be con artists, or a married couple looking for a lemur (it makes sense in context). The C pill offers more hallucinatory other lives, including a Hobbity half-elf life for Annie, and tossing Owen into a bloody gangster family.
All these branching and wandering plots make Maniac the kind of show where you need to pay close attention. If you get distracted by scrolling through your phone, you’re going to suddenly glance up at the screen and wonder if you accidentally sat on the remote and switched to a Sopranos episode, or a Lord of the Rings-like flick.
But if you can stay focused — and 10 episodes is a big commitment — Maniac rewards its dedicated watchers. Stone and Hill are mesmerizing, plus they’re backed up by a stellar cast including Field, Theroux and Garner.
Theroux (in a disturbing moppy wig) is absorbingly weird as Dr. James Mantleray. His character was fired from running the drug trial, but is brought back out of desperation. (Sonoya Mizuno’s Dr. Azumi Fujita shines as his chain-smoking partner.) Turns out that Mantleray’s mother is famous therapist Dr. Greta Mantleray, and her voice and personality were programmed into GRTA, the computer upon which the experiment relies. Family trauma, whether for scientists or drug trial participants, is as much a part of this show as the futuristic inventions that make Annie and Owen’s world just a little unnerving.
Maniac is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, whom 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 recent supernatural steamship series 1899, you’ll likely find Maniac fascinating.
But it’s not for everybody. I can absolutely see where some viewers will feel impatient, as the show spends entire episodes wandering through the different lives Owen and Annie live while under the drugs’ influence. It could easily have been a five-episode series instead. Still, I felt as if I’d dug a lost treasure out of the Netflix vault. I’ll be thinking about Stone and Hill and their weird, wild world for a long time.
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