This latest Netflix miniseries combines an all-star cast and a strong science fiction element to provide an intriguing interpretation of the future, while deftly balancing a very personal exploration of mental health. Yet despite the insightful direction and multi-faceted lead performances, the plot has a tendency for straying into convoluted territory, and doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying exploration of its central themes.
In an alternative interpretation of modern-day New York, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgram (Jonah Hill) find themselves involved in a clinical drug trial, which combines radical technology and mysterious pills to simulate a variety of different realities in which the pair continue to meet. With Annie plagued by personal tragedy, and Owen suffering from both isolation from his family and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, the trial promises to cure them both completely, without any side-effects…
“What Maniac most confidently embraces is its alternative version of the present day”
Perhaps the most important element to discuss of the series is how its reality differs to our own. What Maniac most confidently embraces is its alternative version of the present day. The interpretation of reality is in a sense paradoxical – a world that is equal parts retrograde and futuristic. Clearly influenced by the pseudo-futuristic stylings of the likes of Blade Runner, the world is full of unique concepts, most commonly associated with the world of advertising: neon signs emboldened across the New York skyline, even a payment system that forces the buyer to watch adverts in exchange for everyday items – a focus that clearly riffs on the modern-day obsession of popular and commercial culture.
Yet considering how Patrick Somerville’s writing excels in its world-building, it is a shame that the plot of the miniseries doesn’t quite measure up. Very little context is provided in earlier episodes, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does prevent you from becoming hooked right from the outset. The shifts between realities in the mid-section of the series are considerably jarring, and for a story that combines science-fiction, mental health and pharmaceutical trials, it’s not entirely clear what the overall message of the series is. The concepts that it plays with are undoubtably fascinating and highly relevant, so it feels a missed opportunity that more of a statement was not made about these.
“The cinematography is as inventive as it is varied”
Nevertheless, the show looks fantastic. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (best know for his work on the sublime first season of True Detective) provides a bold vision for the series, with a remarkable control of colour. The cinematography is as inventive as it is varied, placing the viewer in a candy-coloured euphoria, which acts at odds with the darker central themes to great effect. Fukunaga’s exploration of mental health seen previously on True Detective come to the foreground for Maniac – even the simpler, more personal scenes see gentle camera pans on close-ups, creating a suffocating, claustrophobic atmosphere. The tone is not simplistic, darting from futuristic, to darkly comedic, to genuinely weird (a plot line involving a lemur in Episode 4 may appear out of place, but roll with it), but still finds time for quieter moments of character development.
The performances of Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are absolutely commendable. Each are given an awful lot to do, with their characters changing subtly with each reality they enter, while still displaying the fundamentals of their original character. The show is at its very best when the chemistry flairs between the pair, and as such suffers slightly whenever the plot chooses to keep them separated. Hill sells his character convincingly, accentuating how uncomfortable he is in his own skin, and displays a real arch as the series progresses. Stone, meanwhile, is particularly impressive in her more emotional moments, making her tragedy appear both genuine and personal. There are some impressive performances from the wider ensemble – Justin Theroux acts refreshingly against type as the bookish Dr. Mantleray, the trial’s lead scientist, and Sally Field is, as ever, a treat as the mysterious Greta.
The originality of Maniac is most probably its greatest strength. But for a show with so much potential, the approach to its primary themes becomes somewhat peripheral, in favour of creating a completely original reality. And while it no doubt achieves this, in addition some strong performances, you might just wish they had chosen to execute the series a little bit differently.
Featured image courtesy of Anonymous Content and Paramount Television via IMDb.