Written by Patrick Somerville, Caroline Williams, Nick Cuse, Mauricio Katz, Amelia Gray, Danielle Henderson, and Cary Joji Fukunaga
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Two people: Owen and Annie find themselves as part of a clinical drug trial for a new medication that is touted to eliminate the need for therapy. With a series of three pills, a patient will bring up their trauma, confront their guilt, and process it. There’s no need for any human interaction with the whole process taking place inside the patient’s mind. Owen believes he is a paranoid-schizophrenic, seeing a phantom version of his narcissistic older brother that tells him he’s part of some grand cosmic truth. Annie is unable to move past the death of her younger sister, killed in a way that Annie holds herself responsible for. As they travel into dreamscapes and live the lives of others, something happens that causes Owen and Annie’s created realities to merge. Meanwhile, the inventors of this drug and the supercomputer that makes it possible are dealing with a malfunction that could have significant ramifications.
Most audience members likely became aware of Cary Joji Fukunaga through season one of True Detective. He brought a very cinematic look to the HBO series. Not just the look, but the depth of the themes woven into that season are spectacular. True Detective stands as a great piece of atmospheric and philosophical horror, a standard the second season failed to live up to. Fukunaga was also slated to direct the recent adaptation of IT but was replaced on the project. I have read one of his drafts of the script, which can be found if you do some googling, and it is quite good. It focuses on developing the characters and less on the supernatural elements. Pennywise is kept in the background for much of the picture which I believe would make the film even scarier. There’s more of an emphasis on Mike Hanlon and the racial violence inflicted on him and the ethnic violence that is an undercurrent in Derry’s history. Alas, that will be one of those great movies that we’ll never get to see.
The first striking thing about Maniac is the brilliant world-building. The series imagines a modern-day world whose technology did not evolve much beyond the early days of Apple and IBM computers. The internet doesn’t exist as an online presence, rather an offline one. When Owen can’t pay for a subway ride, he has the option of using an AdBuddy. This is an actual person who carries a briefcase full of ads that they read to the customer while they go about their day, essentially living pop-up ads. Annie needs to blackmail a person, so she utilizes a doxing service which has a storefront like any other business. For the right fee, they can give all the details on a person and information on debts, criminal offenses, or anything you might be able to hang over their heads. It’s such a brilliant remixing of our current culture and reminded me a lot of the way Michel Gondry likes to devolve things into a lo-fi format.
Maniac doesn’t secure itself in this one reality though and over the course of the series we see 1980s New Jersey, 1940s upstate New York, a Lord of the Rings-type world, a take on Goodfellas, and finally a 1960s alien invasion. Each reality involves our actors; Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, playing a variety of different characters and doing a fantastic job of it. Stone stands out as a Jersey hospice nurse fighting to get back a stolen ring-tailed lemur. I particularly enjoyed Hill as an Icelandic civil servant who has befriended a small alien ambassador. The show walks that line between charming and annoying with its quirks and, when it errs on the side of genuine pathos, it is fantastic. Other times I did find the themes a bit cloying and obvious and wanted the story told with a defter hand.
The series’ creator is Patrick Somerville, a novelist who has also done television writing. Somerville most recently worked on seasons two and three of The Leftovers, writing some of the stronger episodes out of a batch of what is some of the best television ever made. Here he gives a very well-made comedy-drama but not something that transcends genre. There was much potential in Maniac to create something that could have genuinely been mind-blowing. The themes of the series dealt with grief, guilt, mental health, and every type of relationship you could think of. What we end up with is a very emotional, satisfying story of two people who are beginning to heal. Beyond that, I can’t think I would ever revisit the project. I like that it was a closed mini-series with no second season to ever come. If you have the opportunity and Netflix it is a notable standout from the rest of their original fare.