My biggest issue with Maniac is that it forces me to be a hypocrite. I have stated — multiple times, in public — my annoyance with the whole “No no, it gets better, you just have to give it 2-5 episodes” thing. It drives me nuts. And yet, here I am, about to do it, to you, my closest friends. (We’re friends, right?) I apologize. There’s just no way around it. I really did not like the first two or three episodes and then I fell in love with it. Mostly. I’ll explain.
Maniac is a big fancy new Netflix series that was created by Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and Cary Fukunaga (True Detective). It stars Jonah Hill and Emma Stone and Justin Theroux and Sally Field. Hill and Stone play patients in a pharmaceutical study, Owen and Annie. Owen is the black sheep son of a wealthy family who had a breakdown a decade ago (a “blip”) and is now being pressured to testify on behalf of his jerk brother in a civil trial. We spend a fair chunk of the show wondering if the whole show is in his head. Annie is a fast-talking, chain-smoking addict with a tragic past and a flair for flimflams. They enter the trial, based on a series of drugs created by Theroux’s Dr. James K. Mantleray, and then things get just weird as all heck. Sally Field pops up all over the place and that rules. It’s a trip.
It’s also stunning to look at, once it all gets humming, thanks to Fukunaga’s command as a director and the little flourishes he sprinkles in. This is especially true after you get through those first few episodes. You can’t skip them, really, because they provide the backstory and foundation for Hill and Stone’s characters that the show then builds upon and layers throughout the rest of the show. You need it. Eat your vegetables. Because once you get to the fourth episode, when the drug trial starts and the mind journeys kick off, hoo boy, things get fun.
An incomplete list of things that happen during the trial, diluted in specificity so as not to ruin them for you, which I would never do to you, my closest friends:
- Emma Stone says the phrase “illegal lemur” in a thick, about-70-percent-of-Marissa-Tomei-in-My Cousin Vinny accent
- Jonah Hill sports a mullet and a Warren Moon jersey
- There’s an attempted heist at a fancy gala
- One of the characters becomes an assassin and kills about two dozen goons in a hallway, all in a single extended camera shot, kind of like if you cross John Wick with Fukunaga’s famous stash house raid single shot from the first season of True Detective
- Sally Field shouts “Gas up the Miata!”
And so on.
These fantasy scenes are easily the best part of Maniac and worth it for them alone. Everyone appears to be having a blast, especially Stone, who gets to do a bunch of standard film characters — thrill-seeking housewife, femme fatale, etc. — and accents in an over-the-top technicolor amusement park dreamland. Theroux is terrific, too, as the troubled hooey-babbling genius doctor. This is not Kevin Garvey. It’s more like a less loopy version of Steve Brule. Wait until you see the scene with him and the CGI. I howled.
(Jonah Hill is solid, also. His character is more muted, on purpose, so he doesn’t get to have the fun Stone does. It’s kind of crazy to realize that these two were in Superbad together a hundred years ago, right?)
Now, there is a story to all of this. A through line that explains why they’re in the trial and what the characters want and need and why they are the way they are. There’s a whole comment on society and capitalism and pharmaceuticals. The show is set in an alternate America that is futuristic in some ways and very retro in others. A lot of things are just slightly off. And it’s… fine. It’s all fine. Some of it is a bit much, and not the fun “a bit much” that the fantasy sequences are. At one point a patient shouts that the trial is unethical and an employee replies, “You waived ethics in your consent form.” Little hammer-on-the-head messaging for my tastes. You’ll probably figure out where this part of the story — the “real” part — is going as the end approaches. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just not up to the level of the wild flights of fancy that split it up. Again, it’s fine, and more than worth it for the other stuff.
Now, comparisons are usually unfair but let’s do them anyway. Maniac is kind of like The Leftovers (especially the parts when Kevin dies and drifts into his Assassin World) and kind of like Legion (weird brain stuff, cool imagery, robot voices) and kind of like Mr. Robot (capitalism, characters who see things) and Inception (wild dream world), with a splash of Archer (old technology in modern world). It’s all those things and more and less. It’s sad and fun and sometimes sweet. It’s big and ambitious and a little messy. It’s a lot, in a bunch of ways, for better and worse. I can see people loving this just as easily as I can see people writing it all off as silly frustrating gobbledygook.
But between me and you, my close and dear friends, I dug it. Now, please gas up that damn Miata. I have places to go.
‘Maniac’ will be available for streaming on Netflix on Friday, September 21st.