Netflix's 'Maniac' merges innovation, human connection
Mind-bending psychological thriller "Maniac" will launch TV lovers into a twisted spirit just in time for Halloween. But that’s not all that "Maniac" encompasses: the show is filled with quirky commentary on the future of technology as well as emotional forces of loneliness and empathy that will attract a wide variety of audiences. Although each of these elements do not always fit together seamlessly throughout the 10-part limited series, each episode will leave viewers on the edge of their seats.
Slightly based off of a of the same name, the recently-released Netflix version stars several acclaimed actors mainly known for their previous work in film. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are reunited on screen for the first time since 2007’s "Superbad", although this time Hill’s schizophrenic Owen Milgrim and Stone’s drug addicted Annie Landsberg allow the pair to show off their dramatic skills as opposed to comedic timing. Those in the field of psychology will recognize Hill’s character's interesting choice of a last name well. Psychologist conducted several unethical yet infamous experiments in the early 1960s on conformity and perceived pain, the latter of which is a recurring theme throughout "Maniac".
Justin Theroux stars as neuro-chemist Dr. James K. Mantleray whose eccentricities make up some of the series’ funniest moments. Sally Field additionally plays a major role as popular psychologist Dr. Greta Mantleray, and Sonoya Mizuno stars as scene stealing Dr. Azumi Fujita.
"Maniac" follows the story of an unethical experimental drug trial in which participants take a series of three pills designed to induce dream-like alternate realities corresponding to each level of the study. Participants, including Owen and Annie, are first exposed to a traumatic memory, identify their personal defenses and then confront their issues with the ultimate goal of self-acceptance all while in this unconscious state. The ultimate aim of the trial is best explained in the series’ opening narration. “Put simply, my goal is to eradicate all necessary and inefficient forms of human pain. Forever,” the narrator states. As one could reasonably deduce from the loftiness of this single drug trial’s goal, things do not go according to plan.
The series is filled with enough plot twists and unexpected action sequences that the slower paced introductions of Owen and Annie stick out. The first episode thought-provokingly brings viewers into the mindset of Owen’s daily struggles with schizophrenia and his inferior black sheep role in a complex family dynamic. Hill’s uncharacteristic turn as reserved Owen is a fascinating departure from his usual comedic trope, and the theme of questioning the construct of reality sets the tone for the rest of the series. The second episode gives viewers an insight into Stone’s initially mysterious Annie by exploring her addiction and leading up to the beginning of both characters’ involvement with the drug trial. The show really begins to pick up here, not only because of the trial but also due to chemistry between Hill and Stone — which drives "Maniac"’s emotionality.
Each of the drug induced alternate realities that Annie and Owen experience showcase a different genre, allowing Stone and Hill to play multiple interpretations of their characters. The creator of "Maniac", Cary Joji Fukunaga, accomplishes this difficult task of jumping back and forth across genre-bending storylines without throwing the entire plot into confusion. Since Fukunaga’s work includes movies ranging from "Beasts of No Nation" to "It" and the next "James Bond", this is not surprising.
While set in the near future, the show is visually influenced by the 80s through its multiple uses of neon lighting, references to the decade’s pop culture and retro-based yet futuristic technologies. But, a majority of these technological developments are oddly placed throughout the show without much context and at times even disrupt the serious pace. Some of these futuristic technology misses fall short not because they are unrealistic, but rather due to their lack of explanation.
Several times throughout the series viewers will question what is going on and how the show even makes sense. "Maniac" thrives on details that in the moment seem insignificant but pop up again in important ways, and these subtleties would be lost on a viewer who does not give the show their full attention. The series is also at its best when Stone and Hill get the chance to show the emotional bond that forms between their characters throughout the course of ten episodes.
Annie and Owen’s relationship highlights the core of what "Maniac" is all about — not glossy technological progress or the complex possibilities of the mind, but the simple and universal need for human connection and the fears people must face in order to achieve it.