An engaging sci-fi spectacle that will keep you guessing!
To put it bluntly, Maniac is very odd. Although technically a sci-fi show, it likes to dabble outside of the genre’s conventions. It starts off in a recognisable, yet futuristic New York mixed with an 80s aesthetic with hints of Japan. Then a few episodes in, there are elves on a quest à la Lord of the Rings, magicians and an entire episode dedicated to the heist of an adorable lemur. These shifts are bizarre for a show that seeks to explore the value of human relationships following a traumatic event. It could easily come off as insensitive and tone-deaf. However, with Cary Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville at the helm, the zany humour and approach harmonises with the show’s heavier themes which is the show’s greatest charm.
Even though the series likes to bounce between genres and tones, the show an intriguing premise that is actually pretty straightforward. We follow Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), a reclusive young man who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. He sees hallucinations of Grimsson, a man who looks, though does not act like his brother Jed (both played by Billy Magnussen). Grimsson leads him to Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), a tormented drug addict. From theft to blackmail, she will do what it takes to escape reality. They are randomly grouped with other volunteers in an experimental drug trial where they consume three pills over the course of three days. Each pill sends them into a dreamscape connected to their greatest trauma. After the trial ends, any form of suffering or pain is completely eradicated.
There is a lot that works in this series. From Ad Buddies, a service where strangers follow you around reciting ads in place of money to chess-playing koalas, Fukunaga’s reimaging of New York shows a society with little to no human connection. Although you don’t spend a lot of time in the city, there’s an offbeat vibe to this heightened version of the Big Apple which is felt throughout the series. The laboratory at Neberdine Pharmaceutical, the show’s primary location, takes design cues from capsule hotels found in Japan which helps keep the characters separated. With its minimalist design and white backgrounds, it appears as if the characters are quarantined from the outside. The acting is also solid across the board. Taking elements from her character in Birdman, Stone organically balances the abrasive aspects of Annie during her more tender moments in the series. Hill gives a splendidly subtle performance as Owen, though the Icelandic accent he used in a later episode is cringeworthy. Whether or not this was intentional, it’s more jarring than comedic. Dr Mantleray (Justin Theroux) and Dr Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) are delightful as the odd duo of scientists leading the trials. Playing double-duty as Greta Mantleray and the malevolently child-like computer GRTA, Sally Field shines the brightest from the supporting cast.
However, like dreams, there are some you remember and some you don’t. The premiere is not the most arresting of introductions though luckily, the series gradually gets better from the second episode. It’s at the midpoint where the series starts to kick off. Building off the groundwork from the first two episodes, it dives headfirst into the eccentric ideas Fukunaga and Somerville have laid out and embraces it. It’s also where the episode structure shifts into an anthology similar to that of Black Mirror whilst staying attached to the overarching premise. Most of the time, it works to the show’s advantage. Unfortunately, the mystery and intrigue that was carefully set up fizzles out in the last third as the series becomes less subtle, more predictable and almost pedestrian by the standards that were set up at the beginning.
But overall, Maniac is an entertaining series. A filmmaker’s playground, it’s a very ambitious offering from Fukunaga which should spark hope for what he could bring to the Bond series. Although not perfect, it is refreshing to see a series which is able to reinvent itself so seamlessly within a short amount of time. Due to this, there are very few shows on right now that are as bold and inventive as this one.
All 10 episodes of Maniac are available to stream on Netflix.