What’s it about?
Loosely based on a Norwegian television series of the same name, Maniac is the latest endeavour from director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, the Idris Elba-starring Beasts of No Nation). Written by Patrick Somerville (the man behind The Leftovers), the sci-fi show stars Superbad co-stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two isolated outsiders who find their lives transformed by a mysterious pharmaceutical trial.
The show focuses on Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill). Set in a retro-future New York, we encounter the chain-smoking, drug-addled Annie, who is fixated on the broken relationships she has with her mother and her sister. Meanwhile Owen is an undiagnosed schizophrenic. The fifth son of wealthy New York industrialists, he has struggled to fit in with his family his whole life – in one scene, we see a vast family portrait: Owen’s yet to be painted in.
Neither of their lives have turned out quite as they’d hoped, and so the promise of a new, radical kind of pharmaceutical treatment draws them and ten other strangers to the facilities of Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech for a three-day drug trial. With just three different pills – labelled A, B and C – Dr James K Mantleray (Justin Theroux) claims he can repair any issue of the mind, whether that’s heartbreak or mental illness. Crucially, he explains there are zero side effects, telling the volunteers the groundbreaking pills will “eradicate all unnecessary and inefficient forms of pain forever”.
The black comedy is split into ten chapters, with episodes of varying lengths – some are 23 minutes, others are 44 – making it the perfect weekend binge show. And most interestingly, as the show progresses, each mind-bending episode delves deep into different times and places, as the drugs take hold and the lab’s sentient computer accidentally produces hallucinogenic dreamworlds for our protagonists to occupy.
Throughout, wild visions blur the lines between reality and dreams – in one episode, Annie takes on the persona of a Lord of the Rings-style elf. In another, Owen and Annie transform into a married couple in the 80s, intent on stealing a lemur. It’s through these trippy experiences that mental health is explored: it’s central to the plot, but it’s never used as a source of humour. Through these increasingly high-octane adventures, we get to explore the real people – and the real depth – behind each of the characters.
Emma Stone (La La Land, Crazy Stupid Love) plays Annie. Not originally in the Norwegian series, allegedly Stone was Fukunaga’s only must-have cast member when Maniac was in pre-production. Based on her genre-bending performance, it was a wise move. Meanwhile Jonah Hill (Superbad, Wolf of Wall Street) plays excellently against type as Owen, switching from his usual comedic approach to one of a glum silence and solitude.
But it’s the supporting players that make Maniac stand out. The Leftovers’ Justin Theoroux (introduced to viewers via a masturbation scene) plays the anxious, toupee-wearing Dr James K Mantleray, while Crazy Rich Asians’ Sonoya Mizuno is the chain-smoking yet silent Dr Fujita, an engineer at the lab who never lets on just how much she knows about the experiment. Elsewhere, Julia Garner (the standout in Ozark and The Americans) plays Annie’s abandoned sister Ellie, Oscar-winner Sally Field (Brothers & Sisters, Mrs Doubtfire) is Mantleray’s formidable mother and Girls’s Jemima Kirke makes a number of appearances.
What do critics think?
While not many critics have managed to get their eyes on the whole show yet, Rolling Stone has described the series as a “surrealistic visual feast”. Variety said: “The beautifully made Maniac plunges viewers into a fictional world that’s both divergent from our own and instantly recognisable — and then reinvents itself several times over, skittering across time, space and genre to tell a story of connection that feels urgent and deeply, painfully human. As a trial of something new, Maniac passes every test, and ascends instantly to take its place among the very best TV of the year.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post said: “Maniac starts off too absorbed in its own complicated structure, but once Owen and Annie are strapped in at the lab (and experience an accidental melding of their subconscious states), the show becomes a visually compelling romp through highly detailed dreams and personal discoveries.”
Where can I watch it?
All ten episodes of Maniac land on Netflix on Friday 21st September.
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