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Maniac is a new dark comedy miniseries developed for Netflix that stars Jonah Hill, Emma Stone and directed by the newly appointed James Bond director, Cary Fukunaga. Spread over ten episodes of varying length, this is easily the most bizarre thing to hit the screen in a long while. Initially giving the impression that you’ll be watching something akin to files like Mother! or Black Swan, this show has the hallmarks of an artsy presentation. But it holds your hand throughout, preventing your imagination from running wild which, although not a huge issue, is at times a little condescending.
The story follows Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), two individuals with mental instabilities. Owen is borderline schizophrenic and Annie is emotionally unstable, fixated on the tragedies of her past. Their paths meet at an experimental drug trial that involves taking three stages of pills while a super computer accesses their subconscious mind, to isolate, confront and accept the traumatic memories by putting the participants through a series of scenarios. Due to a mechanical malfunction, Owen and Annie’s subconscious’ are fused, causing them to live their own and each other’s traumas through a series of ever changing characters and backdrops.
The first two episodes are very convoluted and hard to get into; it takes a while to properly introduce the main characters and has huge tonal inconsistencies. It’s initially unclear if this will be a comedy, a drama or science fiction, a methodical look on the world or simply a think piece. The setting is a semi-futuristic version of New York, in which robots clear pet mess and an intriguing ad-buddy concept helps people pay for food and transport by listening to advertisements, or even selling their image. It’s a callous way of looking on the world that would’ve benefited from more screen time and discussion.
The puzzle pieces slowly start coming together around episode three, the characters start making sense and the general feel is more forthcoming. The script, although uneven, has flair, with several moments of genius; the humour is bold and lands perfectly, mixing together satire and serious nicely. Visually, the experience is intense; the differing scenery allows every episode to appear new and energising, helping to keep the audience’s attention.
Maniac focuses a little too much on the progression of Annie and Owen. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, but so many different interesting elements are introduced that are simply never followed up on, after a while this becomes a little frustrating. The sub-plots surrounding the scientists alone deserved their own episode of explanation and development. As whiny as this may sound, what is delivered is perfectly adequate. If anything, wanting more in this instance gives praise to the already excellent work.
The overall attention to detail is outstanding, both in character personality and setting; add to that the interesting story and it really promotes re-watching to discover little Easter eggs planted throughout. The biggest downfall here is the lack of shock value, rarely is there something unexpected or dramatic. As previously mentioned, you’re handheld at every step, making sure you fully understand how a character is feeling and precisely what they’re going through. Additionally, it explains any potentially confusing visuals which, though not bad, depending on your viewing preferences, could leave you feeling a bit lifeless, longing for your brain to be working a little harder while the show panders to those with short attention spans and an inability for self-explanation.
The storytelling, however, is gripping; it’s a refreshing way to explore character personalities, gradually developing them through their subconscious, taking their likes and dislikes and manifesting them into character arcs. It also shows a unique directional style as piecing together these different elements couldn’t have been an easy task.
The performances are excellent, especially by Stone and Hill, throughout the ten episodes their talents clearly shine through (Jonah Hill in episode nine is especially hilarious). Additionally, their chemistry together works brilliantly. Julia Garner (Ozark) plays Annie’s sister who was killed in a traffic accident; her screen time was small yet very memorable. The remaining cast, Sally Field, Justin Theroux, Gabriel Byrne and Sonoya Mizuno, among countless others, all had a purpose (if too short) and melded into the story perfectly.
Maniac is a bizarre piece of television; it is relaxing and frustrating, both a masterpiece and missed opportunity. The more you think about it the more your opinion changes. Frankly, the best way to describe it would be a show that aims to help its characters psychologically, while at the same time helping the audience by taking them through a whirlwind of emotions themselves. Regardless of the outcome, the experience is well worth it; it’s not overly long and at least one episode should please even the most jaded of audience members.