Netflix’s newest venture, Maniac, is already being considered one of their bravest. From science fiction to crime drama and even including Emma Stone in elf ears, this series has a lot to bring to the table. It’s a union of concepts that have no reason to ever be near each other, yet the logic of this show manages to piece (most of) it together just fine. Currently being touted by critics as the craziest thing you’ll ever watch, it seems like a lot to take on for a casual binge watcher. Maniac transports you into a dream — scape more jarring for the audience than the characters. Yet, there’s a surprisingly (and disappointingly) simple message if you’re willing to look past Jonah Hill’s braids and neck tattoo to find it.
In Maniac, Hill and Stone are together again to show just how drastic of a turn their careers have taken from their days in Superbad. Their characters, Owen Milgrim and Annie Landsberg, are complete opposites. The only similarity between the two strangers is the myriad of issues they carry with them: burdens so big, they’ve been lead to participate in a drug trial. Naturally, this is where things take a trippy turn.
The drug trial, designed to cure all mental ailments, is a psychological obstacle course. It launches participants into fantasy worlds entirely in their heads that appear to be built from familiar movie genres. One time, they’re robbing a seance in the 1940s. In another, they’re in the 1980s dealing with illicit lemur activity (you read that right). The only thing that remains consistent for Annie and Owen is each other. In a strange malfunction, the pair’s subconscious offers a pathway to one another’s, leading them to taking on all these alternate universes together.
It sounds confusing at surface level, but Maniac can be boiled down to being a nearly 10 hour reason for Hill and Stone to play dress up. With acting as brilliant as the two of them have to offer, this isn’t as bad as it should be. Hill in particular stands out as introverted schizophrenic Owen Milgrim, a role completely different from anything he’s taken on in the past. If I hadn’t known otherwise, I would’ve assumed this show was made only to showcase the versatility of Stone and Hill as actors. We see Emma Stone go from a one-take shootout to being a Lord of the Rings-esque heroine. Hill even gets the opportunity to briefly swap out the serious stuff for his usual comedy during his turn as an Icelandic deputy minister named Snorri. Even before that, he turns into an actual hawk. Needless to say, this probably isn’t what you had in mind when you heard about the new show that hits hard with its dissection of mental illness.
Watching Annie and Owen play pretend is sometimes confusing, sometimes heartbreaking, but always fun. But once the theatrics are out of the way, nothing of substance is left. Annie and Owen come off as one-note initially, rendering the hallucinations as a good way to pry open the subconscious of these characters and figure out what they’re really about. Yet, when you look past the extravagance of their dreams, the story is still surface-level. No hidden issues about the characters nor mental illness is explored with any depth. Instead, any potential for showcasing depth in the characters’ struggles gets swept up in the spectacle constructed around them. The layers of genres and characters in this show make it seem impossibly convoluted but when that’s stripped away, it seems simpler than the writers wanted it to be. More than anything else, Maniac is just an exploration of genres, tropes and the leads’ acting abilities.
Many points still have to be given to director Cary Joji Fukunaga. The project is ambitious and few directors could have made it as stylish as it is. Fukunaga is able to explore each of the unique visual styles presented in this series with confidence. Maniac’s experimental nature is something to be appreciated, as we wouldn’t have seen anything like it outside of the Netflix era. It’s a good show that had the potential to be amazing, and I hope to see this potential harnessed for future abstract Netflix experimentations.