“Why do you lead me a wild-goose chase, and bring me at such unseasonable hours to such dangerous places?” —Don Quixote
Owen Milgram (Jonah Hill), schizophrenic scion of a wealthy industrialist, finds himself furloughed—permanently—in the first episode of Maniac, and it sets off an earthquake at his desk. After ralphing in the office john, he tears the toilet paper dispenser from the wall, revealing the series’ oft-repeated motto in wayward black scrawl: The pattern is the pattern. In Netflix’s magical mystery tour of the human psyche, from writer/creator Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), this passes for wisdom, poised on the border between knowing humor and novel insight. As Owen and his equally unhappy ally, Annie (Emma Stone), enter a pharmaceutical trial that soon goes awry, Somerville and Fukunaga’s kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamline baby can’t seem to settle on an aesthetic, a setting, a period, a plot—the sort of indecision often mistaken for depth. In its tautological mantra, though, Maniac ends up echoing its own central failing. Perhaps the pattern is the pattern, in the sense that it contains no secret meaning or profound explanation. Perhaps it’s the “wild-goose chase” of Cervantes’ description, or the shrug of that helpless commonplace: It is what it is.
In this, Maniac is a kissing cousin to Legion (FX), Noah Hawley’s mannerist experiment on the margins of the MCU. In each case, a long-suffering man comes to believe that his mental illness is not, in fact, an illness at all, but will enable him to save the world; in each case, he joins up with a beautiful, elusive blonde to sift through memories and dreams; in each case, he hopes to find the key to healing his mind, and thus defeating the nefarious forces arranged against him. Maniac is the wittier of the two, dancing across genres and gesturing at its quixotic construction with ample references to Don Quixote; Legion is the more arresting, dancing through musical numbers, silent films, holograms, and the astral plane. Both are series out of place—even Maniac’s “New York” appears largely imaginary, The Bonfire of the Vanities meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—out of time—mixing the futuristic and the retro in search of anachronistic alchemy—and laboriously “out there,” full of details straining to become patterns, patterns straining to form stories, stories straining to suggest secret meanings and profound explanations. That both are in fact as shallow as a saucer should really come as no surprise: The defining feature of such “mindfuck” TV, after all, is its terrible, terrible tedium.
The problem isn’t that Maniac and Legion are absent entertainments. The former finds Sally Field, as best-selling pop psychologist Greta Mantleray, eagerly awaiting an apology from her son, James (Justin Theroux), the put-upon doctor in charge of the pharmaceutical trial—and then, upon its receipt, telling her houseboy to “Gas up the Miata!” The latter finds Aubrey Plaza, as hero David Haller’s (Dan Stevens) deceased friend-turned-nightmarish vision, Lenny Busker, sauntering down a hospital corridor to a mod cover of “Bolero.” There are diving bells, exploding kitchens, séances performed at a backwoods West Egg; elfin epics, pink supercomputers, parasitic blobs feeding on memories; Rubik’s cubes, ring-tailed lemurs, “The Rainbow Connection” on banjo and a striptease to Nina Simone. Ultimately, though, both series’ surfeit of strange minutia, pitched as part of their “eccentric” aesthetic, buries their most inventive gestures under a mountain of nonsense; to watch either is to understand the life of a withering ‘49er, panning for gold and finding only minuscule flakes of it.
This, in itself, isn’t enough to merit much more than a sigh—plenty of TV series require more attention than they earn, whether through switchbacks of plot, convolutions of character, or leaps of time and place. But Maniac and especially Legion turn the request into a demand: In treating their flotsam and jetsam as meaningful, or at least potentially so, both place the onus on the viewer to unlock their respective “solutions” through the collection of clues. Even before its second season complicates the series further, for instance—adding narrator Jon Hamm’s meta-textual commentary on such psychological phenomena as umwelt and “the nocebo effect”—Legion emerges as a rat’s nest of information. When David escapes the psychiatric hospital where he’s been held, he’s spirited away to a woodland campus called Summerland by a therapist, Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), who claims that “mental illness” is simply society’s label for powers it can’t understand or control. There, in addition to his love interest, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller)—a young woman who switches bodies with anyone she touches—David meets Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), a “memory artist” capable of rendering other people’s memories as living dioramas, and Cary/Kerry Loudermilk (Bill Irwin/Amber Midthunder), a milquetoast scientist inside of whom lives a thrill-seeking id.
The plot of Legion, to be reductive, concerns the Summerland group’s attempt to help David apprehend, develop, and deploy his telepathic and telekinetic powers against Division 3—the government entity chasing David—and, later, Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban), a parasitic, shape-shifting mutant lodged in David’s mind. But for all the effort Hawley requires—demands—of us, simply to follow the branches that germinate from this already overworked trunk, Legion never arrives at anything resembling an original idea about, or image of, the unconscious, subconscious, or conscious mind: It’s a hodgepodge of Rosebud-esque devices—the terrifying protagonist of a children’s book, The Angriest Boy in the World—the usual comic-book Freud—at one point, David surmises that he was given up for adoption by his mutant father for his own protection—and orations on the nature of memories, dreams, fantasies, and realities fit, charitably speaking, for an undergraduate seminar on Descartes, all slapped with a fresh coat of paint and some clumsy CGI. Even this might be forgiven if Hawley’s precious set pieces—a self-consciously “balletic” four-part fight sequence juxtaposing lonely gyrations with actual fisticuffs; entire episodes nested, Inception-style, within freezes in the action—generated an emotional response, but any sense of the characters as more than a bunch of beakers and flasks in which to test new combinations of tedium evaporates as fast as the viewer’s patience. “It’s all an illusion, I see that now,” David explains to Syd midway through the first season, already protesting too much. “They’re signals, that’s all. What you see, what you hear. Impulses, sent from nerve endings. Electricity in the brain. Real, fake, it’s all the same.”
Though Maniac shares much of Legion’s style, from the intense, monochromatic lighting to the twee set decoration—green-screen computer terminals, a New York subway map from the 1970s, an isolation pod straight out of Sleeper—it has the advantage of a rudimentary sense of humor and a comparatively simple plot. But it, too, prefers pulling the rug out from under the viewer to mustering a modicum of patience. Where Legion petulantly changes the rules of the game any time it finds itself backed into a narrative corner, Maniac upends the chessboard altogether: During the course of the trial, Owen and Annie find themselves, alone and together, in a series of traumatic memories, baffling dreams, and pop culture-inflected fantasies, on which the doctors—and thus Somerville and Fukunaga—are able to press the reset button at each new stage. As a result, Maniac constructs a more fluid understanding of the psyche than Legion, but also loses its characters in a deluge of patterns, in other people’s voices and other people’s clothes. By the time the series establishes a firm grip on any one iteration of Owen, Annie, or their inexplicable affinity, then, it’s time to move on to the next; like the “lost chapter” of Don Quixote the series imagines, Maniac strands us in an unsatisfying—but not particularly edifying—state of limbo, poised between the beginnings of things and their ever-dangling ends.
Arranging details into patterns, patterns into stories, stories into meanings: It’s here that life as it’s lived diverges from life as it’s narrated, and perhaps Maniac and Legion, though far from the first, deserve credit for trying to reflect the former’s fundamental messiness. But as with Maniac’s mentions of Cervantes’ adventure, or Legion’s late reliance on textbook precepts, both series amass—and emphasize—so many details that don’t seem to matter, require—demand—so much attention that doesn’t pay off, that they come to resemble certain of the experiments they depict, their cold and unknowable calculus. Maniac is the more successful, the more sentimental, of the pair, and during one interlude, its most “realistic”—a tense and ultimately startling flashback, starring Julia Garner as Annie’s sister—it calls to mind all its squandered possibilities. But it also contains, as one might say of the human brain, the seeds of its own destruction. Before entering the trial, both Owen and Annie must sit before a screen and respond to a series of images, sans context, and both receive the same warning from the nurse: “Try to answer with an emotion, rather than a description.”
“This test is not about the truth,” she elaborates for Annie.
“What is it about?”
Of Legion and Maniac, it is possible to conclude—or be berated into concluding—that one has not watched carefully enough, not collected enough clues, not tried hard enough to unearth their secret meanings, their hidden depths. But the problem with the series’ own inscrutable images is that patterns often obscure meaning more than illuminate it, which becomes a defense mechanism of another sort: the test one can never pass.
Maniac is now streaming on Netflix. Seasons One and Two of Legion are streaming on Hulu and FX NOW.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.