Just two weeks ago, I wrote a review of Jim Carrey’s new series Kidding, in which I pointed out that the once radical idea of movie stars making television shows is now ho-hum. Still, though, within the category of “movie star” there are different tiers. While Carrey was the biggest movie star in the land at the apex of his career, he has been on its down-slope for some time. The appearance on TV of a young, viable movie star who has recently won an Oscar—an actor who presumably has a cornucopia of rewarding movies from which to choose—is still a rarity. Netflix’s Maniac, which arrives on Friday, stars one such woman, Emma Stone, as well as movie star and newly minted fashion icon Jonah Hill. Additionally, it is directed in its entirety by Cari Joji Fukunaga, whose last television outing resulted in the good season of True Detective. All this big-name energy has allowed Maniac to break free from the peloton that is Peak TV, and careen into September as close to an event as non-rebooted television gets these days.
In addition to all the aforementioned bold face names, Maniac was created by the novelist Patrick Somerville, who previously worked on Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers. (Maniac’s ostensibly based on a Scandinavian show of the same name, but as loosely as an XXL shirt fits a mouse.) Like The Leftovers and like Lindelof’s Lost, Maniac is a balancing act between a razzle-dazzle plot and more earnest ideas about the importance of emotional connection. The show is a crazy ride, spanning psyches and genres, involving grief-stricken supercomputers, multilayered waking dreams, Freudian analysis, Stone as an elf, Hill with a mullet. It’s set both in an almost recognizable America and the far reaches of the human mind, but it is ultimately about how the only real cure for endemic loneliness, alienation, and sadness is time, effort, and—above all—friendship. For better and worse, it’s like a psychedelic Hallmark card: gorgeous, clever, weird, but maybe you’ve heard the sentiment before.
Maniac is set in a disorienting alt-present in a world something like ours, but not quite. There’s a “Statue of Extra Liberty” in the East River, the Brooklyn Public Library is a bus depot, computers seemed not to have advanced beyond ’80s desktops, and there are little machines scurrying around the streets picking up dog poop. Their technology is not quite as advanced as ours—there are no cellphones and no internet—but even without it, Americans are as commodified and atomized as ever. People are still bombarded by ads, but they come delivered by an “ad buddy,” a real person who recites the ad to you and then puts money in your bank account. Hiring someone to pose as a friend is a regular, if slightly embarrassing, coping tactic. And things appear to be further along than they are for us in the widespread availability of VR porn, even if it arrives on floppy disks. Maniac’s assiduously lo-fi approach to technology is an inadvertent prod to a show like Black Mirror, suggesting that an unexplored avenue for thinking about our dystopian moment is to take the tech away and see how debased we remain.
Slogging through this world are two lost souls: grieving, spunky addict Annie (Stone), and Owen (Hill), an introvert with schizophrenia and the black sheep of an odious upper-class family that behaves like a fraternity in perpetual hazing mode. For their own reasons, they both join a trial run by Neberdeen Pharmaceutical Biotech for a treatment that purports—with three pills, microwave technology, and a supercomputer—to do what Freud could not: Heal the subconscious. It’s therapy in ingestible form, with each pill resulting in a vivid genre-based delusion. Annie and Owen find themselves inexplicably linked as they make their way through personalized drug trips that resemble an ’80s action movie (hence Hill’s mullet, paired with a Warren Moon jersey), a Nick and Nora–style screwball caper, a gangster pic, and an a fantasy epic tale, among others. Maniac, in other words, is a TV show that has a number of truncated movies smuggled inside of it, a fitting challenge not only for two movie stars doing TV, but for Fukunaga, a director who makes both—and who just this week announced that his post-Maniac project will be the next James Bond movie.
As Annie and Owen weave their way through delusions, getting to know themselves and one another, their pharmaceutical trial is falling apart. Maniac is, unexpectedly, also a workplace comedy, with the funniest bits of the show coming from its B storyline: the unprofessional chaos of the Neberdeen staff. Justin Theroux plays Dr. James Mantleray, a disgraced, vainglorious, sympathetic goof with a toupee, who created the GRTA super computer, called Gertie, which monitors the patients. Mantleray was previously bounced from the struggling trial, but as Gertie starts to act out, he’s brought back on board by the trial’s No. 2: his ex-paramour, the cool-as-a-cucumber Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno, lately of Crazy Rich Asians, though you won’t recognize her through the glasses and heavy bangs). Pop psychologist Gloria Mantleray (Sally Field), James’ mother, also enters the fray. In the impeccably designed Neberdeen lab— truly, there are thousands of buttons and drawers and wires, and you will want to touch and open and pull on every single one —this trio work through their own Freudian psychodramas while trying to keep Gertie from harming the patients.
All these actors, as well as Stone, are vibrant, ridiculous and, to varying degrees, moving. Stone is a firecracker; Field is a bolt of batty energy; Theroux plays against his good looks with doofy abandon; Mizuno’s Dr. Fujita is a stone weirdo playing it mod-ishly straight. But Hill’s Owen is depressingly flat. There’s some logic to the dialed-down performance—Owen is sad and scared, he’s bullied by his family—but it screws up the show’s emotional calculus. Instead of a psyche- and genre-defying bond between equals, Annie and Owen’s connection feels more like a writerly concoction without spark. (In the penultimate episode, when Hill finally lets loose as a smiley Scandinavian in a Dr. Strangelove–esque delusion, the whole show elevates.) Both of the series’ climaxes—one inside Annie and Owen’s delusions, one outside of them—orbit around whether the pair will be able to rescue one another. After everything, it comes down to friendship—but there’s no escaping the feeling that Annie, in Owen, isn’t taking on a friend so much as a future problem.