It’s not hard to see why Netflix’s Maniac has sharply divided critics. The star-studded miniseries takes viewers on a ride through a pharmaceutical trial for a mind-altering drug. Much of the dark humour comes from a sentient and depressed computer and an eccentric scientist with mommy issues. The show hops across genres endlessly, combining dystopian science fiction with 1990s-style comedy, crime thriller elements and fantasy. Depending on where you look at it from, it could be a massive win or an epic fail.
And yet, there’s something about the ambitious series, starring Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, and directed by Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective), that makes it worth watching, even if just to pick your side of the divide.
The show centres on Owen (Hill) and Annie (Stone), who cross paths at a pharmaceutical trial. It’s a dangerous and controversial pursuit, and both have their own reasons for enrolling in it. Owen, a diagnosed schizophrenic, has just lost his job and could use some extra cash. He belongs to a wealthy family that he doesn’t relate to and which is coercing him to give a false alibi for his brother, Jed (Billy Magnussen), who has been accused of an unknown crime.
To further complicate matters, Owen keeps seeing a man who identifies himself as Grimson but looks just like Jed. Grimson urges Owen that there’s a heroic mission lined up for him, and that a woman will meet him with instructions. When Neberdine Pharmaceuticals and Biotech mail Owen with information about the trial and describe him as a “hero candidate”, he decides to explore it further. When Owen sees Annie at the selection for the drug trial, he presumes her to be the handler Grimmson told him about.
Annie, on the other hand, blackmails her way into the trial because she’s addicted to one of the pills in the programme. However, the pill she can’t live without causes traumatic experiences to resurface, forcing her to relive the worst day of their life. That’s the day her sister died in a car crash, when Annie was at the wheel. The revelation that it’s pain that Annie is addicted to is one of the early signs of a series that’s going to spring surprises, unpleasant and otherwise.
The trials in question are for the three-stage ULP drugs, which, if successful, would help rewire the brain and eliminate suffering, to outmode psychotherapy and other forms of counselling. It’s no coincidence that the head scientist, Justin Theroux’s James Mantleray, has devoted himself to this cause. His estranged mother (Sally Field) is a globally renowned therapist and his experiment, if successful, could put her out of business forever. As the trials begin, however, it’s clear that there’s a lot more than a failed experiment at stake.
The look and feel of the facility and the premise of a computer-controlled drug trial for a mind-altering drug have the trappings of a futuristic science fiction thriller. The place where Annie, Owen and others are locked up for the duration of the trial is stark white and cold. Subjects sleep in claustrophobic pods, eat cube-shaped foods and socialise only when ordered to. But if most artificial intelligence-based thrillers propose a future where machines will take over the world, here, it is humanness of the computer at the helm of the experiment that unleashes chaos.
The drug trials stage is when Maniac is at is wackiest. The pills send subjects into a reverie during which they embark on a series of adventures that fuse their real traumas with fictional events. Annie and Owen frequently find themselves in each others’ dreams, something the programme was not designed to do. Together they embark on a series of escapades. There’s a comedic hunt for a lemur set on Long Island, a supernatural hunt for the lost chapter of Don Quixote, a Lord of Rings-style fantasy sequence where an elfin Annie looks for a magical lake with her sister, and a crime story where a braided and tattooed Owen belongs to a mafia family.
Watching a series of dreams can be repetitive after a point, but alert viewers will also delight in the many Easter eggs that are littered throughout those flights of fancy. The dream theme ties into the question of reality versus illusion. By raising the tantalising possibility that dreams and psychosis are not that different after all and by fusing the lines between what’s real and isn’t, Maniac could be hypothesing for its viewers that Owen’s mind may not be so different after all. By mixing the cold world of science experiments with mystical themes about soulmates, cosmic connections and patterns in the universe, Maniac also alludes that the world isn’t a place for straitjacketed classifications of normal and abnormal.
Watching Maniac is like taking a winding, sometimes confusing train ride into a dreamy world with many layers and meta-references that sometimes leave you amazed, sometimes confused and sometimes unimpressed. But ultimately, Maniac works because of the simplistic themes at the core of its labyrinthine structure – of connection, love and friendship.