PSA: If you happen to be a person who is prone to doubting your reality, think twice before binge-watching this puppy. There. You’ve been warned.
A trafficked ring-tailed lemur. Popcorn problems. The lost final chapter of Don Quixote. And Gassing Up the Miata. Netflix’s new miniseries Maniac has its imperfections. But it proves that even if reality might be a debatable construct, metaphors and tropes and symbols are pretty stinkin’ permanent. Writer Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) have created something that’s as much like visual poetry as any TV show I can recall seeing recently-and unlike most poetry, it’s also freaking hilarious. But please don’t go into it expecting a comedy, though. It is 100% not a comedy.
Annie (Emma Stone) is profoundly depressed, prone to substance abuse and lying, and has some serious issues with a sibling. Owen (Jonah Hill) might be schizophrenic, and he’s under a lot of pressure from his wealthy family over a legal matter, and he has some serious issues with a sibling. Arguably, neither of them is a good test subject for a highly experimental pharmaceutical trial, but this one happens to be for a series of pills to “cure” all the ills of the psyche, and they’re both hard up for money… and for answers, closure… relief. Gertie, the AI who curates the experience, might or might not be having some dangerous issues of her own. And it might result in an unexpected situation where Annie and Owen repeatedly appear as characters in each other’s monitored dream-states, or “reflection” realities.
Visually, Maniac an amazing collage of artifice and artifacts. It’s set ambiguously in the near future or in an alternate now: There are dot-matrix printers, old-school TV monitors, and coded telephones, but also friend-rental services (“I have real friends,” one character snaps. “This is just more convenient.”) and some kind of sensory-deprivation pod you can retire to if you just can’t deal. The genre-bending 10-episode span oscillates from Annie’s consciousness to Owen’s, with plenty of sidebars to the behind-the-scenes lab where Justin Theroux is rocking an insane hairpiece and a lot of Freudian baggage and Sonaya Mizuno is a walking compulsive disorder, chain-smoking through every single scene. And the literal mother of all toxic mothers is played to utterly awesome effect by Sally Field (complete with subtle nods to everything from Sybil to the “You like me” speech).
Meanwhile, back in the narrative: Hill’s character doesn’t get as satisfying an arc as Stone’s, and it’s hard to tell how much of that is the script and how much is Hill’s zero-affect chronic low-grade disorientation thing. When Owen and Annie are inside any of the various fantasies, Hill demonstrates a marked ability to be loving, kind of ominous or epically screwball, but his character doesn’t ultimately progress quite as much as Annie’s and you notice it as a deficit. The story is essentially one of almost-magically converging lives, the elusiveness and also the inevitability of connection with other people even in a wildly disconnected world. It’s about “fungible boundaries” and the walls we erect to defend ourselves against our own pain. And like most things, the bottom line is, it’s about love and the overwhelming weight of family baggage.
But as compelling as Maniac is at the story level and as visually riveting as it is as it veers from genre to genre (in various “reflections,” Annie is everything from a gum-cracking 1980s Jersey girl to a drawling fishnet-stockinged sharpshooter to a pseudo-Legolas muttering that “Fantasy is my least favorite genre”), its impact stems largely from its ingenious use of repetitive imagery. I can’t remember the last time I saw a psychology-freighted drama that was so accurate in its rendering of the surrealist landscapes of our dreams, the symbolic power with which people tend to imbue certain objects (for Owen, a Rubik’s cube; for Annie, a truck), and the unbearably inescapable circles our minds tend to go it. It’s a masterpiece meditation on self-fulfilling prophecy and self-sabotage and self-loathing and self-doubt and… self itself. Look, a mainframe computer melts down because it develops a self and “has all the feels.” Which is just to-die-for awesome. The use of imagery is superb throughout; Fukunaga really does knock it out of the park on that front. The contrasts, and the parallels, between the characters’ exterior and interior worlds are amazingly eloquent.
The cast is amazing and studded with a wealth of major-league supporting performers, but this is Stone’s and Hill’s show for sure, and they both have lots of amazing moments. Smart writing, great creepy sensibility, well-balanced episodes: Maniac is basically fabulous… I’m trying really hard not to utter something like “tour de force” but… um…
Whoa. All the feels.
Maniac premieres Friday, Sept. 21 on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.