FYI: “Maniac” Will Leave You Reeling
Breaking Bad. The Walking Dead. Game Of Thrones. There are some shows that go down in history as single-handedly raising the bar as far as television is concerned. Right now, critics have gone so far as to say that we are living in a TV golden age, partly because of the shows mentioned above, and partly due to the original contributions of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, with Stranger Things, Orange Is The New Black and GLOW all playing a part in revolutionising the media landscape.
I’m calling it right now: Maniac will go down in the record books as one of these shows.
And yet, I’m kind of at a loss for what to compare it to, or even how to sum up its premise to an interested audience. It resists categorization on all fronts, from genre and tone to message and moral, and even the plot is hard to pin down since it’s so unclear at first what’s happening. Days after finishing, it key questions about the world in which it is set have not been answered: when does it take place? Is it set in our world at all? If so, what event caused things to diverge to such a degree?
With that said, it definitely ranks top of Netflix’s current offerings, and currently sits in first place as far as my personal ranking for TV goes, definitely for this year and possibly for the decade. That means that I have a duty to impress upon you just some of what makes this show so captivating, even if much of its appeal is so nebulous that it’s hard to describe even after watching.
So. Maniac follows two strangers: an emotionally closed-off layabout with a drug problem called Annie (Emma Stone) and a rich kid struggling to make it on his own while wrestling with mental illness, named Owen (Jonah Hill). Both are struggling financially in a distinctly retro-feeling future New York, but their bigger problem is emotional – trauma has left them both aimless and restless, unable to escape whatever coping mechanisms they have developed in order to navigate the world on a day-to-day basis. Either directly or indirectly, this leads them to take part in a shadowy pharmaceutical trial, which promises to cure them of their of neurosis and leave them healed.
Sounds simple, but that easy-to-digest starting point soon spirals into something far bigger – more alienating, more comedic, more earnest and more terrifying by turn. The scientists in charge are addicted to the drugs they are taking, and the computer they rely on to keep the subjects safe is more sentient than they intended. The computer is dealing with what can only be clinical depression, and the only cure is a visit from the scientist’s celebrity therapist mother. The mother, it turns out, is the person whose brain the computer was modelled on in the first place, so she’s essentially counselling herself. Oh, and the mother, the computer, and the engineer who created it are all competing for the scientist’s affection – and he was recently found in a back-alley apartment sleeping with an AI tentacle mermaid.
Overwhelmed yet? I don’t blame you, but there’s much more to come. Once the goal of the drug trial is established, we spend as much time in the subjects’ heads as we do in the lab, and each foray into their brains splinters into a thousand fantasies layered on top of each other. We watch their core traumas emerge again and again in different settings, their desires playing out in everything from high-fantasy to old-timey mystery to grubby but endearing realism. Our protagonists become everything from spies and cat burglars to World War One era-scientists who single-handedly ruined humanity’s first contact with aliens, and all the while details from their real-life swirl around them, recombining endlessly to give us new clues about their history. Given the chaos in the lab playing out at the same time, we are never told exactly how much of this is to be expected, and we are left to guess just how much is going terribly wrong.
Add to this the question of whether soul mates can truly exist, and whether there really is a pattern in the universe, and you get what should be a gritty corporate mystery playing out in technicolor on a truly cosmic scale. Not only that, but right at the point where you cannot take anymore complexity, the show rounds the bend and flattens out into a simple but beautiful love story. For all the forays into different universes, absurdist comedy and genuine horror imagery, the question at the core of everything is obvious: can those who are damaged find true love?
Both Emma Stone and Jonah Hill deal with this question expertly, deftly keeping it at the forefront of their performances even as they flip through several levels of reality an episode. Whether called upon to be down-trodden, farcical, slick or achingly relatable, they give themselves over completely to each new character they play, while still convincingly connecting them on a subconscious level. Watching them feels like looking into a kaleidoscope, seeing each performance bounce and refract off each other to add to the overall piece’s beauty and complexity. I have absolutely no idea how they keep it all straight in their heads, but it’s a performance that stands out even among their impressive resumes, and its divisiveness among critics and audiences is only further evidence of that.
So if you like screwball comedies, period dramas, epic romances or B-movie aesthetics, I’d take a chance on Maniac. For me, it feels like if Mr Robot was refracted through the lens of The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and I can’t give higher praise than that.