More people need to watch Netflix’s excellent sci-fi miniseries
I’d like to file a complaint with whoever named Maniac, a 10 episode hidden gem of a 2018 sci-fi series. Yes, I realize it’s loosely based on a Norwegian series of the same name , but the title has kept me away for far too long. The Maniac title is also that of an unrated 1980 slasher movie with an infamously creepy poster featuring a serial killer holding a bloody scalp, and no no no I’m not watching that.
This Maniac on Netflix is not going there. It’s a psychological sci-fi series that mixes laughter and tears, has a stacked all-star cast (Jonah Hill! Emma Stone! Sally Field! Julia “Ozark” Garner!), and one of the most twisty and complex storylines. which I have seen in some time. And its ending, with a development reminiscent of The Graduate, lifted me up, making me feel like these two super-eccentric people I loved maybe, just maybe, had a future.
Let’s start at the beginning. Maniac came out in 2018 and was well-reviewed at the time, but I completely missed it. It’s set in a New York parallel universe that’s recognizable enough, but peppered with Black Mirror-style sci-fi developments just weird enough to keep things interesting.
For one, New York now has something called the Statue of Liberty Extra. There’s a company called AdBuddy that buys things from you in exchange for letting someone sit next to you and read ads to you (the pop-up ad from hell). There’s a thing called an A-void pod, almost like a kennel for humans, where those who are fed up with the world can just retreat from it all. A concept called FriendProxy allows you to hire fake friends. These things aren’t always scrupulously explained, they just sort of exist, and viewers figure them out on the fly, or not.
Jonah Hill plays Owen Milgrim (yes, a nod to The Milgram Experiment, a famous psychological experiment where people simply followed orders, even if they thought they were hurting others). He struggles with schizophrenia, which is not helped by his horrible, wealthy family, who want him to lie on the stand in his monstrous brother’s upcoming sexual assault trial. Emma Stone plays Annie Landsberg, who suffers from borderline personality disorder. Annie suffered a horrific family loss in her past, and like Owen, she is a broken person living in a broken future world.
Owen and Annie sign up to be guinea pigs in a major pharmaceutical company’s trial for a drug that’s supposed to eliminate human suffering. One of the steps to doing this is to take a pill (called the A-pill) that takes you back to the most painful event of your life. Ho, my boy. Letting someone slap ads in your face on the subway is one thing, but coming back to the most devastating moment of your life is another.
Pill A is only part of the test. The B pill sends its takers into other fully realized lives, where they could be con artists or a married couple looking for a lemur (makes sense in context). Pill C provides other, more mind-blowing lives, including a Hobbity half-elf life for Annie, and throwing Owen into a bloodthirsty gangster family.
All of these branching, rambling plotlines make Maniac the kind of show where you have to pay close attention. If you get distracted while scrolling your phone, you’ll suddenly glance at the screen and wonder if you accidentally sat on the remote and skipped to an episode of The Sopranos or a movie from type Lord of the Rings.
But if you can stay focused — and 10 episodes is a big commitment — Maniac rewards its dedicated watchers. Stone and Hill are fascinating, plus they’re backed by a stellar cast that includes Field, Theroux, and Garner.
Theroux (in a disturbing moppy wig) is incredibly weird as Dr. James Mantleray. His character was fired from performing the drug trial, but is brought back out of desperation. (Sonoya Mizuno’s Dr. Azumi Fujita shines as his chain-smoking partner.) Mantleray’s mother turns out to be famed therapist Dr. Greta Mantleray, and her voice and personality were programmed into GRTA, the computer on which the experience is based. Family traumas, whether for scientists or participants in drug trials, are as much a part of this show as the futuristic inventions that make Annie and Owen’s world a little unnerving.
Maniac is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who you might know as the director of the latest Bond movie, no time to die, and who won an Emmy for directing the first season of True Detective. And if you’re a fan of True Detective, or The OA, or the recent series of supernatural steamers 1899you will probably find Maniac fascinating.
But it’s not for everyone. I can absolutely see where some viewers will feel impatient, as the show spends entire episodes wandering through the various lives that Owen and Annie live under the influence of drugs. It could easily have been a five-episode series instead. Still, I felt like I had extracted some lost treasure from the Netflix vault. I will long think of Stone and Hill and their strange and wild world.
New movies coming in 2023 from Marvel, Netflix, DC and more
View all photos
Leave a Reply