Since the inception of online streaming platforms, television industries have been aggressively battling for our attention and money. While cable and broadcast television must adhere to the advertiser-friendly content that they know, companies like Netflix and Hulu are allowed more freedom. They are able to prioritize art, and focus on darker themes, which mainstream audiences don’t anticipate.
As a result, Netflix’s “Maniac” provides viewers with a 10-hour miniseries comprised of exceptional performances, inspired choices in direction and a script that almost delivers on the existential concepts it questions.
Directed by Cary Fukunaga, “Maniac” follows Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), two strangers who participate in an experimental pharmaceutical trial promising a solution to all of life’s problems. The two join the trial for different reasons — Annie is trying to fuel her addiction to the drug; Owen is desperate for money after losing his job — but they soon discover a bizarre yet familiar connection to one another.
The trial was created by Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), a wacky neuroscientist with his own mental issues who believes that any ailment of the mind can be solved. Throughout the story, his patients are forced to deal with their most traumatic events and confront these issues head-on through mind-bending and experimental fantasies.
This miniseries is an actor’s showcase at its best moments. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are the most exciting elements of the show, and both are given free rein of their characters. The story allows both of them to uniquely transition between socially inept strangers and hilarious caricatures carefully designed to showcase their talent. The pair first worked together in 2007’s “Superbad,” and their shared chemistry since then gives the show some of its best intimate scenes.
The supporting cast should not be underestimated, however. Justin Theroux and Sally Field provide the project with one of the most bizarre mother-son relationships in television. I can’t disclose too many of the intimacies between the pair without spoiling some of the trial’s secrets, but what I can say is that they are equally as important to the miniseries’ success as Stone and Hill. Relative newcomer Sonoya Mizuno is also given an interesting role as Dr. Mantleray’s passionate lab associate focused on continuing the trial despite the mania that ensues.
Aside from the performances, Cary Fukunaga’s direction provides “Maniac” with its beautiful retro-futuristic world. He infuses every scene with an artistic vision reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The detailed production design and cryptic score are the most impressive technical aspects of the series, as both elements are essential to the worldbuilding that Fukunaga seems to have mastered. He recently signed on to direct the untitled 25th James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, and I have no doubt he will repeat his successes on this exciting new endeavor as he did with “Maniac.”
The world that Fukunaga creates would not succeed without the inventive concept of lead writer Patrick Somerville. The psychological trial presented to Annie and Owen is intimately designed to manipulate those who feel the most pain in their lives. The trial’s existential ideologies written by both Fukunaga and Somerville are intriguing for sure, but the story never resolves those ideas as well as the rest of the narrative elements.
In addition, the remainder of the screenplay is sometimes a bit too clever for its own good. From beginning to end, the story draws extensively from tedious details of previous episodes and can be overwhelming at times when it impedes understanding of the continuing narrative. The connections between events are undeniably entertaining to discover, but can be easily lost in the impeccable performances and worldbuilding.
Netflix’s “Maniac” is an entertaining and provocative story which showcases its stars better than series from other streaming platforms. Although Fukunaga has stated that a second season is unlikely due to the nature of the material, I would be thrilled at the thought of returning to the strange and meticulously designed world on display. If a psychological dark comedy starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill doesn’t at least intrigue the most casual of television fans, then I certainly don’t know what will.
Final Grade: B+
Alex M. Jankovich is a film columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.