Netflix’s ‘Maniac’ intrigues
A deep-voiced narrator begins to speak: “Two million years ago, an amoeba. Wait, let’s back up. I’ve skipped too many connections.” This kicks off Netflix’s new psychological black comedy “Maniac,” an engrossing TV show centered around human connections, most notably those that occur in the brain.
"Maniac" combines the aura of mystery found in "Blade Runner" with the intense fear and foreboding of "2001: A Space Odyssey.” However, it never feels unoriginal or too reliant on science-fiction tropes. The show’s 10 episodes explore the trajectory of protagonists Anna (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) as they submit themselves to an experimental drug trial for a medication that can potentially permanently treat all mental illness and trauma without any therapy sessions needed. Viewers also discover that the two main characters are bound by a predestined connection, and most of the plot revolves around that point of convergence. However trite this premise sounds, the creator Patrick Somerville and director Cary Fukunaga manage to turn the conventional boy-meets-girl storyline into a beautiful, enthralling exploration of the subconscious.
The show’s creative team draw heavily upon Japanese pop culture and language. This unique aesthetic maximizes the possibilities to develop eye-catching, fluorescent-filled sequences, expertly brought to life by art directors Audra Avery and Anu Schwartz and cinematographer Darren Lew. However, the plot does not take place in any part of Japan, as it sometimes may appear, but rather in an eerie, time-defying New York City. Here, the technology screams “futuristic,” but is more reminiscent of 1980s aesthetic values.
“Maniac” never makes it clear which year it’s set in, which plays into the excitement of the series where audience members can identify the setting based on which attributes from the future or the past they decide to project onto the setting. The bemusing aspect of this push and pull has generated rave in the online world because of the fascinating, interactive quality it provides to the narrative. In a show that so clearly relies upon psychological themes, the audience’s controlled confusion successfully emulates the intricacies of the human unconsciousness.
The confusion gets heightened by Owen’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, which drives some of the show’s plotlines. Jonah Hill heartbreakingly illustrates how it feels when his family treats him as a scapegoat because of his diagnosis. Regardless of Owen’s compelling story, the most notable character has to be the extremely caricatured Dr. James Mantleray (Justin Theroux), whose mommy issues led him to create the revolutionary drug. Part of his work in the narrative is to figuratively give birth to a smart computer (GRTA, a shortened version of the name Greta) that runs the experiments in the test subjects’ minds. The GRTA closely resembles H.A.L. from “2001” and is voiced by Sally Fields, who also plays Dr. Mantleray’s mother. The star-studded cast works perfectly in the ensemble, each member giving the most moving performance of their character.
However, the show’s weakness can be found in its somewhat lengthy surreal sequences, which can drag and eventually prompt viewers to skip parts of the show. Nonetheless, getting through these boring moments is rewarding. Towards the end of the show, viewers are completely linked to the characters and begin to feel their pain as they navigate their deepest insecurities during the trial.
In a show so obsessed with delusion, the direction allows to exist it in a parallel version of 2018. The technology appears so close to reality that it hits rather close to home and seeing oneself reflected in the screen is not a difficult task. The confusion always serves a point in the narrative, as one of the characters says: “It’s called a fantasy, James.” So just flow through the dream states and enjoy the beautifully crafted world of “Maniac.”