There’s a lot to admire about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s cerebral romp, Maniac. It’s a marvel of world-building — across several worlds, really. It’s funny, and whimsical, and philosophical. It’s got a few truly standout performances. It’s real pretty to look at. And underneath the surrealist airs and pop psychology, there’s a raw emotional edge that’s undeniable. Basically, there’s something in this series that almost anyone can appreciate.
And yet, will it satisfy you? That’s the question.
Jonah Hill stars as Owen, a young man who some fundamental problems with reality. He’s schizophrenic, and it manifests itself through paranoia and delusions — including one persistent delusion involving a mysterious version of his brother who offers Owen missions, as though he’s a secret agent who can save the world. Owen is also depressed, but that’s more to do with the fact that he wants so very hard to be normal. His family doesn’t understand him, or even really accept him, but they have no problem using him when they see fit — such as having him serve as an alibi for the non-delusional version of his brother, who definitely forced his co-worker to have sex with him.
But before Owen can give his false testimony in court, he decides to make some money by signing up for a pharmaceutical trial testing a new miracle drug that could eradicate the need for therapy, and even for suffering. Basically, it could fix humanity. There he meets Emma Stone’s Annie, another test subject — one who has scammed her way into the trial because she’s already been snorting the drug at home, and her supply has just run out. Annie’s core trauma is rooted in the car accident that killed her little sister, and she’s been trying to escape her grief and guilt ever since.
And then… stuff happens. The drug trial has three phases, which involves a mapping and recoding of the minds of the subjects, and along the way Owen and Annie literally have their wires crossed, causing them to enter each other’s mental space and play out different scenarios together. The reason for the mishap is that the AI running the trial is depressed, and like, cries on the internal hardware or something? And that’s sort of the B-plot of the show, involving the scientists conducting the experiment — including Justin Theroux as Dr. James K. Mantleray and Sonoya Mizuno as Dr. Azumi Fujita. And honestly, all you need to know about Mantleray is that he’s introduced fucking a computer simulation, which Azumi interrupts, and the rest of the scene involves Theroux trying to act serious while a big ol’ dick computer bobs around on his crotch.
Oh, you should probably also know that Mantleray has mommy issues. Specifically, his issue is that his mother (Sally Field) is a very famous psychologist, and this entire drug trial is basically a way of making her obsolete. Which would be more impactful if he and Azumi hadn’t based their AI on her in the first place.
Still, Owen and Annie are the main focus, and their mental forays are like mini-movies playing out inside the larger framework of Maniac. Personally, I loved the retro-futurism of the show’s reality — a semi-dystopian now projected from deep in the 1980s, full of flashing neon billboards and poop-scooping sanitation-bots and people whose sole job is to read advertisements to your face. But if that’s not your stylistic bag, then maybe you’d prefer the stolen lemur escapade in Long Island, or the old-timey séance caper, or Cold War NATO shoot-em-up, or Annie dressed up like Legolas in a fantasy riff (where Owen pops up as a falcon). Stone in particular shines during these segments as she sinks her teeth into each accent and adventure, but it’s also a welcome respite for Hill as well, whose Owen is a monotone, mumbly mess in the real world.
So in the end, does the trial work? No, of course not. As tantalizing as a cure for humanity is, we’re all broken and we’ll always be broken. Our parents fuck us up, there is no pattern to our existence, and maybe life really is meaningless. Grief and suffering is inevitable. Sometimes people leave, and we don’t know why. The only ray of hope, the show argues, is human connection. Finding someone to understand and accept the ways we’re broken, and who lets us share their brokenness as well. But that’s not a cure — that’s a salve. And as Annie and Owen drive off to Salt Lake City in the show’s final moments, it’s impossible to view it as a happy ending. They’re together, surely. But the camera lingers on their smiles, more forced as the seconds go by, and we can’t escape the understanding that they aren’t really OK after all. Perhaps they’re better off together, for now. But their problems haven’t been solved.
Even that ray of hope is ultimately meaningless.
In the heart of Maniac is a fierce streak of nihilism, lurking behind all the gorgeous imagery and snappy dialogue and pseudo-science jargon. It would be easy to dismiss the show as thinking it’s smarter than it is, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. The show tackles the nature of grief in a way that is genuinely moving, but a lot of the philosophy surrounding all that is just an intentional distraction. There is no answer to the questions that Maniac poses, beyond “This is just the way we are.” And I think that’s the point. This may be the way we are, but at least we’re ALL this way, and I guess that’s something?
You may get to the end of these 10 episodes and wonder what the point is. You may be frustrated by the tonal shifts, the morose comedy or jarring explosions of gore. You may find the repetition of images that lead nowhere exhausting, or captivating. You may love Emma, hate Jonah, want to grow up to be Mizuno’s Azumi, and wish Sally Field had more to do. But I don’t think you’ll be bored, and if you are — just give it a few minutes, because it’s going to change tracks once again.
Header Image Source: Netflix