Last Friday Netflix released a new exclusive series Maniac directed by Cory Joji Futunaga staring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in the leading roles. The dark comedy series follows the two main characters into an experimental pharmaceutical trial.
Owen is the fifth son of a wealthy business owner and for years he has lived in the shadow of his brothers, feeling like a black sheep. Owen also has trouble with determining what is real and what is not. He has a chronic schizophrenia, trust issues and gets fixated on people.
Annie is a drug addict trying to quit and move on with her life after losing a relative. She has also a problem communicating her feeling to people, she either shuts-out or is aggressive. Both characters want to be independent and free of their demons. For Annie these are the ghosts of the past, for Owen it is his father and brothers who use his vulnerability to manipulate him. They meet at the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company which is testing a drug which is supposed to cure all mental illnesses, even heartbreaks. They are guaranteed that the test is safe and they will all be well at the end of it. What they don’t know is that the labs AI is slowly slipping in her own ‘mental’ disorder.
The series explores the conscious and subconscious minds of the two main characters. Over 3 days in the lab we see their reaction to the drugs that they take and how their past informs their present. The director beautifully crafted the worlds that the characters visit in their minds and the references and links between their experiences. Emma Stone and Johan Hill give beautiful and broad performances, they are engaging and sympathetic. The lab workers are also not black and white, with their own motivations and backstories which inform their choices.
The series is set in 70s style alternative present or near future New York. Instead of apps people can hire services like artificial friends, blackmail services or alternative families. They can also pay for things by listening to someone reading out advertisements. The scenery is filled with neon lights, flashy billboards contrasted with the everyday greyness. Overall the set design is very interesting, the ads are a bit futuristic but with a nostalgic retro twist. On some levels, the style might be compared to that of Stranger Things but it is not the same style. There is a sense of nostalgia and retromania, but much lighter and fun is colour schemes which are an ode to typical association with drug usage and subconscious thought processes.
The miniseries is a very clever and interesting inside to the human mind. It is also eye pleasing and fun, but with all the hype about it, I found that there was something missing. The series is not engaging enough to want to binge the whole thing at once. Some of the scenes were too long and were a bit boring. Also out of 10 episodes 6 take place in the character’s minds and another 2 just in the lab. This gives only 2 episodes to explore the outside world that Futunaga created and I wish I have seen more of it.
Overall, it is a series definitely worth watching. It is very insightful, beautifully crafted and acted out. The characters are deep and their worlds are interesting and pleasant to watch. It has many layers and minor characters that are equally interesting as the main ones and fits it all in only 10 episodes. There are a few things that could have been better but I wouldn’t let that spoil all the fun.