Netflix’s newest original limited series, “Maniac,” is a dystopian psychological thriller with unmistakable “Cloud Atlas: and Inception vibes. It’s no surprise that Emma Stone (“La La Land,” “Birdman”) finds herself in yet another groundbreaking role, with a performance that follows suit. And Jonah Hill (“21 Jump Street,” “Wolf of Wall Street”) continues to distance himself from the quirky comedy actor that he used to be known for, by excelling in yet another more serious role. In conjunction with the directorial talents of one of Hollywood’s most underrated creative minds, Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective,” “Beasts of No Nation”), “Maniac” showcases a more-than-capable cast and crew. This talented ensemble, also including Sally Field (“Forrest Gump,” “Lincoln”) and Justin Theroux (“The Leftovers,” “Wanderlust”) comes together, and they all bring some of their best performances. This translates to on-screen success. The show feels like an homage to psychological thrillers and trippy, brain-melting media of yore, but presents itself distinctively, and has an original story to tell. Even the co-creator of the show calls it “completely bonkers”(Deadline Hollywood), but it’s precisely this far-fetched craziness that makes “Maniac” so good. It’s campy at times, downright outrageous at others, but at the end of it all, you are left with a uniquely and thoroughly entertaining miniseries. Although technically a spin-off of a 2014 Norwegian show of the same name, “Maniac” has a lot to offer in terms of ingenuity and originality. The show itself clearly draws from fan-favorite sci-fi elements without falling into the trap many sci-fi movies and shows do: redundancy. “Maniac” has its roots in familial themes, such as alternate realities and 80's tech-driven society. But the core store is poignant and new.
Owen (Hill) and Annie (Stone) are two equally pitiable characters who find themselves crisscrossed in the midst of a drug trial that promises to change their lives and to solve their pain and their struggles. But when subjected to the medications and placed alongside the other ten participants, their two specific lives, and multiple other potential ones are sent on respective crash courses that always seem to ricochet and gravitate towards each other’s. Caught in parallel drug-induced dream worlds that often mimic and draw from their own core realities, these medically-produced visions of alternate lives are grounded heavily in their actual ones. So much so, that the characters begin to see and experience things increasingly difficult to separate from reality.
While it may be a tad bizarre, the show actually deals with some serious topics, like interfamilial responsibility, processing grief and loss, and what it means to live with mental illness. Many shows are criticized by the media for poorly representing mental illness, both in thematic elements and character traits, and instead exploit those stereotypes for the purpose of telling a story. “Maniac,” however, has been praised by many, including sources such as Vice, Bustle, and The Mighty for its realistic look into mental health topics that are often not as clear-cut as many shows represent. The Mighty writes, "Unlike many representations of schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder in Hollywood, ‘Maniac’ doesn’t rely on stereotypes to tell each character’s story nor does it demonize them." In an interview, Fukunaga himself says, "We wanted to be compassionate to mental illness and not make that the butt of the joke." Owen and Annie are, in their simplest forms, broken people looking for a way to fix their troubled lives. Owen is the black sheep member of a wealthy, morally-questionable family, and Annie is a survivor dealing with a tragic loss. But the same thing that brings them to the drug trial also provides them with their greatest source of strength: resilience. The two are on paths striving for wholesomeness out of brokenness, and they will come to realize that they have more in common than just their mental illnesses. “Maniac” is a lesson in learning to love yourself, your family, and your mind, all while reminding us to forgive and remember. By reliving and revisiting some of the darkest corners of their disturbed minds, Owen and Annie are given a chance to confront their demons quite literally face to face at times, and through this, teach us what it means to strive for betterment.
While not a comedy outright, there is a lot of humor packed into every episode, much of it being ironic or dramatic. And the multiple settings create an environment of this absurdity which keep every single episode fresh and exciting. But the subjects tackled in a mere ten episodes make you stop and think about what it is exactly you are watching. Regarding this, Fukunaga says "We want people to walk away with something. It's not just pure entertainment." Give “Maniac” a shot, if you’re looking for an unconventional and pensive change of pace for your next Netflix binge.