An endearing quality of this content-on-demand digital frontier we find ourselves currently inhabiting is the increasing multiplicity and depth of shows that are produced and made available to consume, often unbeknownst to the public at large. Some days, you just boot up the ol’ Netflix, and there’s something intriguing, weird, or quietly groundbreaking waiting at the top of the queue.
How fortunate for me to have an example of all three waiting for me when I found Maniac early last week. I am sure I will be able to unravel the many folds and quirks of the show upon repeat examination, but this initial viewing pulled me in and dazzled me, a beautiful and digestible confluence of some of my favorite media. If you took the zany, hallucinogenic strangeness of Charlie Kaufmann (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the charming retro aesthetic of indie gems like Her and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and threw them in a blender filled with the fresh-squeezed juice of Terry Gilliam’s mind, the end result would probably be something resembling this mini-series.
The story is a flummoxing, oft-intersecting dual affair, centered around a borderline schizophrenic Owen (Jonah Hill) and a surly, down-trodden drug addict, Annie (Emma Stone), who find themselves selected for a secret and potentially dangerous pharmaceutical trial in a sort of late 70s/early 80s infused corpocratic world meant to exist at roughly the same time as the modern day. The main plot focuses on Owen and Annie’s experiences throughout the testing, with a fun, interwoven B story following the scientists administering the trial (Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno).
It’s hard to review a show like this while skirting spoilers, as much of the appeal and accomplishments of its storytelling are wrapped up in its central conceits. I won’t give anything away here, but needless to say, if you can’t already tell from the initial description of the setting, Maniac pushes genre and dramatic boundaries at every turn, leaping from many different narratives and tones to deliver a multi textured picture of the characters’ personal and psychological issues, while giving them wild and fun modes in which to address these problems. Scenes will jump from goofy action set pieces, to heartfelt symbolic interpersonal confrontations, to hyperbolic violence and dark satire, sometimes all in the span of one 40 minute episode.
The show’s main themes deal extensively with the human psyche and mental health, with a particular attention paid to the effects of isolation, human connection, shame, guilt, trauma, fixation and paranoia, as well as moving past the events and people that have wronged us, and maybe forgiving them, but more importantly ourselves in the process. The show is not hesitant to explore, nurture or push the near-constant vulnerability of its protagonists and supporting cast, and highlights a spectrum of human compassion, gleeful irreverence, and crippling self-doubt with small, poignant moments that are sometimes inserted benignly as one-off gags or kept contained as “monster-of-the-week” situations as often as they are included as far reaching multi-episode devices.
Speaking of narrative, the script and story are superbly constructed, indulging in many tangents, but supported by a strong and strategic foundation of well-placed beats, call-backs, repeated motifs, and explaining the larger, in-world context of these elements before the audience ever gets too overwhelmed by the surreal-ness of everything. The dialog is snappy and has a lot of heart, something that provides a positive anchor for viewers to hold onto, which Maniac uses to its advantage when delivering heavier emotional scenes.
This is the kind of science fiction I am drawn to, with a unique visual quality reminiscent of several other worlds but able to create its own stamp. I think the length of the series (10 episodes) is appropriate, and definitely a manageable and worthwhile investment for your eyeballs.
4.5/5 Take a dive into Mindlantis