Review: MANIAC

A show about binaries - especially the inside and outside of a person's head

How much do stories help you, really?

Think about it. We tell ourselves stories to justify what we’re doing, or convince ourselves to do something else. Characters in stories become role models, in one way or another–even if we don’t follow their actions, we think of them as situational trailblazers, true cases of facing issues we face ourselves. Stories can help us cope, help us overcome, help us understand…

…and sometimes, they can’t. Stories stay the same and the world doesn’t, there’s a “The End” or a “Happily Ever After,” but your life still goes on. How safe is it to trust stories?

When I try to discuss Maniac, one of the latest drops in Netflix’s waterfall of programming, I find myself at a loss as to where to begin, other than to discuss the very nature of stories themselves. I hold that fundamentally, stories are problems – as in “math problems” 1. Stories are scenarios presented to show us something wrong, and the process whereby it’s put right. We’re entertained because we can recognize the magnitude of the problems, empathize with the way a storyteller connects it to problems we know, and then be satisfied when we see how the problem gets solved.

Just as an example, a lot of stories have the problem of “these people aren’t making out right now”, and go to considerable length to solve that problem.

A big reason Maniac makes me want to discuss stories is that it calls to mind so many of them. When I reach for comparisons for the show, I come back overflowing: I could cite the fluidly stylized narratives of Noah Hawley or the Coen Brothers, the palpably artificial yet emotional nested worlds of Christopher Nolan or Drew Goddard, the disturbingly complete science fiction of Philip K. Dick or Jasper Fforde, the breathlessly-paced absurdist humor of Italo Calvino or Daniel Pinkwater…I could go on, though I don’t feel like I could top the authors of If on a winter’s night a traveler and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency.

Those names come in pairs for a reason. Maniac is a show where the viewer is constantly switching between two perspectives. There are complicated character relationships, dozens of different worlds and stories and concepts, but everything eventually comes down to two people trying to understand each other with a story, or two stories linked because we know they’re in the same world, or two worlds trying to link together through minds, or two minds that sync up despite being in the bodies of two very different people.

The primary duo consists of Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, reuniting the long way around after they walked off together into the 1990s Canadian sunset, more than a decade ago. Here, they meet as test subjects for a pharmaceutical study that will supposedly solve every single possible neurological disorder with the same treatment – have you guessed that the treatment heavily involves stories?

Also, monster movie restraining chairs – I’m genuinely surprised the show never has lightning arcing between the two pads

Hill plays Owen, the runt of a litter of Large Adult Sons, estranged from his family by dint of his paranoid delusions, imagining vast conspiracies that use him as his family’s weak point. Stone is Annie, who lost her family and relishes the survivor’s guilt, thinking she deserves it – they’re both using the drug trial as a means to an end. That’s an interesting thing about the show’s many binaries: The two halves achieve a balance of being different perspectives but not perfectly opposed, less of two parallel routes or a contrasting yin and yang than an unstoppable force and an immovable object. The emotional complications that result feel authentic: Annie thinks she can make an ally of Owen, Owen has conflicting impulses about that, and the treatment doesn’t help matters, bringing their deepest emotions to the surface.

The Norwegian TV show from which Maniac is adapted (it had the same name) was completely about Owen. Each episode was a flight of fancy in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty tradition, wherein Annie’s equivalent would always appear as a hostile but seductive figure, even though in reality she was just a nurse at the mental institution where he lived. This version, adapted by Patrick Somerville and It-girl Cary Fukunaga, doesn’t just change the whole focus of the show by giving Annie perspective, it also gives the viewer a different perspective.

The show takes place in a strange alternate present-day New York, where styles of the past and future intermingle, along with a lot of abject wackiness: Owen lives adrift in a sea of neon advertising signs (we’re meant to take notice of one wall that flashes between advertising candy and advertising toothpaste), and spends his free time looking across the harbor to the chrome-plated “Statue of Extra Liberty.” Meanwhile, most of Annie’s social interactions involve a completely fictional branch of the service industry where the gig economy is applied to the entire sphere of human connection: You can hire a friend, or hire a parent, or even make money by ‘hiring’ a sales rep, in a way that presages the connection Annie will make with Owen over the course of the paid study.

I’m told a similar joke was a centerpiece of SNL’s very first episode – Chevy Chase was the replacement dad.

Of course, that’s before the drug trial starts, and the show alternates between this “real” world and the drugged-out hallucinatory fantasies they have as part of the treatment, which get even wackier. This kind of thing won’t work for everyone, but to me this is a comedy show first and foremost, and I find the cycle of new worlds and characters consistently hilarious, in a way that makes it more memorable than it would be if I wasn’t laughing.

To my mind, it’s the single best way to do worldbuilding, thanks to the sequence: First, you’re confused and unsettled by learning something weird about the world you didn’t know. Second, your brain catches up and you laugh at the joke. Next, you move on, but the first two parts have lodged it in your mind, so you can make it important to the characters or the plot or the themes without fear of losing the audience.

Sometimes, this sequence of events is mixed up or nested: The first and second parts get hit clearly, when we’re introduced to Justin Theroux as the controversial neurologist who conceived the experiment. We’re unsettled by how everything but him seems blocky and unreal, then we find out he’s actually inside a VR simulation and we’re amused at the world he builds himself. The serious character stuff doesn’t come for several episodes, though, and instead we’re just hit with a barrage of VR jokes for several minutes on end. Not that I’m complaining, of course–eagle-eyed viewers will notice that his system is manufactured by “Suckulus”.

And the games include “Mallard Hunter XXX” and “XXXtreme Skydiving”.

In fact, eagle-eyed viewers are pretty much Maniac’s target audience. The reason I’ve avoided talking about the actual story is that it’s articulated across several narrative threads that tangle together through the simulated realities of the test, and that occur at right angles to the story of Justin Theroux and Crazy Rich Asians’ Sonoya Mizuno as the test’s administrators, who have complicated emotions and family trauma of their own. That’s part of the binary I mentioned: The binary of binaries, Owen and Annie’s fearful, self-motivated alliance contrasting against Theroux and Mizuno’s professional yet co-dependent relationship, making a Punnett square of people. This Punnett square is a pretty sizable equation with base factors as diverse as Gabriel Byrne and Sally Field – both parents who prove Philip Larkin’s famous dictum in their own way–or a malfunctioning computer who would be a spoiler to cite by actor.

“Story problem”

I’m constantly second-guessing myself as I write about this show, which you should take as a good sign – I feel as if I’m not a good enough writer to begin, let alone end. Even as I try to enumerate its faults–a few central supporting characters feel like they should get more to do, there’s this weirdly retrograde throughline of xenophobia, in the “silly accent” variety–I wonder the degree to which I should temper it. Are those faults forgiven by the costume design that works as hard as the writing to unsettle, amuse, and provoke you in sequence? Can I look past them for the lighting, that works on the logic of a giallo movie? Is it worth ignoring, in exchange for the show explicitly saying Stone and Hill aren’t romantically or sexually interested in each other, a choice that I love?

I think the answer will change depending on what you think – maybe I’m the crazy one here.

It’s hard to define “insanity.” It’s a negative, which means all you can do is define what sanity is–what normalcy is–and make insanity everything else. The problem is, it’s hard enough to define what’s normal to people’s minds that agreeing on a definition is difficult–which is enough of a meta-analytical, self-fulfilling prophecy that it’s worthy of this show.

In that spirit, I won’t try to pretend I have any idea how normal this is. I’ll just say what I’ve been avoiding saying this entire review: Maniac is not for everyone, but it was for me. I can scarcely remember the last time I saw something that hit so many of my buttons so well: It’s a show set in New York, with an elaborate SF setting, with a whole host of metatextual literary allusions including a subplot about Don Quixote, and frequent train journeys. It’s also deeply funny, which some people won’t like but I consider a universal plus. It’s sort of a dark joke how tailor-made this is for my frame of reference and my tastes, and how many people are dismissing it out of hand.

“Will I like Maniac” as a question, thus becomes “How similar are my tastes to this reviewer’s, to Adam’s?” I suppose that makes it a helpful story – it helps us understand the relations we have.

  1. a term that’s gone out of style lately, but which I use for the sake of clarity