Summary: A new form of treatment for mental health is tested using live subjects.
There’s some original content on Netflix that is really fantastic and some that is meh. Maniac might be one of the best things the streaming service has put out in the past two years. It’s intelligent, funny, emotional, thought-provoking, and creative all the way through. I actually didn’t binge watch this. I was tempted because it was that damn good, but I think there is real value in processing each episode on its own- it’s just more impactful if I can let it sit for a day or so.
Maniac is the latest work of director Cary Joji Fukunaga, created and written (mostly) by Patrick Somerville, based on a Norwegian series of the same name. It takes place sometime today (if technology took a slightly different path in the 1980’s), where a pharmaceutical company has a new drug on the market that supposedly can repair minds and make its user feel normal again- whatever the hell that means. Two of the test subjects are drawn together throughout the trial and find the real cure for each of their illnesses.
The good things I have to say about this show should come as no surprise after gushing about the announcement of Fukunaga as the new James Bond director. It’s just chock full of what I enjoy about his work. It’s stylish without being obnoxious- there are so many gorgeous symmetrical shots that I just wanted to study for a few more minutes and then just barf over because they were so disgustingly nice to look at. It has a long take! I love that it’s 80’s inspired without feeling like I’m being beat over the head by the decade- it feels like lots of thought was put into how our world could have evolved from that time period. And it’s incredibly smart- its use of the characters, its study and analysis on the subjects of trauma and grief, and its commentary on the idea and execution of human kindness. It’s a series you can watch lightly for entertainment, but also one that you can study- depending on how closely you want to watch, or I guess how closely you are willing to watch, the meanings and messages of the entire series can change. And there’s such an impressive command of the audience and genre-hopping here- I really did find myself laughing and crying within the same episodes.
Most of the laughs came from Hill and Justin Theroux, who I want to give a quick shout out to here and I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen in- oh wait, I did see Girl on the Train. Never mind. But he’s really quite good in this and I really wasn’t expecting to like his character as much as I did.
I will say that Maniac doesn’t really feel like things take off until maybe halfway through the second episode or perhaps even the third. There is quite a bit of world-building which I’m into, as the setting is meant to feel familiar but mysterious at the same time and it looks like they got caught up in their own fun and then remembered they only had ten episodes. But. The performances really hold everything together. Hill and Stone are so good separately and even better together- it really feels like no time is passing whenever they are on screen together.
I’m more familiar with Stone’s work, but still haven’t seen Moneyball or Wolf of Wall Street, so I was more susceptible to be impressed with Hill’s acting in this series. He really does an outstanding job here. They both do, but Hill’s eyes look particularly empty in some scenes. Stone and Hill are each given a variety of characters to play and allowed to run away with them- it’s a lot of fun seeing Hill and Stone together again in a more comedic setting but then getting that toned down, more dramatic vibe. It’s like we’re seeing them evolve. To go along with that, the relationship between Owen and Annie is incredibly special. For starters, it’s a relationship built on trust and engagement and simple acts of humanity- and it has no romantic implications whatsoever, from beginning to end.
Sidenote: I’m always miffed that when two leads of opposite sexes somehow don’t fall in love at the end or get together, my reaction is always “Oh! That’s nice!” We’re just meant to believe that a man and a woman on screen are eventually just going to fall for each other- leads, like men and women, can indeed coexist without any of this happening. I get even more annoyed when it’s just shoehorned in there because executives (probably) can’t handle this idea. Edge of Tomorrow. Let’s not. Anyway, I adore and applaud how the characters openly state their affection for each other on the basis that they are friends and that people need other people to care for them. It opens up a whole door for what male and female characters can do for each other without getting in the way. It shows that women don’t always have to be a supporting character by being a love interest. There’s a real genuine connection between Annie and Owen and each of their arcs would have been ruined if it wasn’t explained by anything other than, “They just need someone to listen to them.”
What I also really love about Maniac is how… full it seems. It’s a completely explored and closed series. I think both Somerville and Fukunaga have said this will be the only season of the series and that there are no plans to add on. There is room to continue or add on other stories, but for the most part, it’s all wrapped up at the end and there aren’t a lot of unanswered questions. The ending reminded me a bit of Three Billboards but without that “Wait, that’s it?” that came after the cut to black. I’m hoping Netflix doesn’t pick it up for another few seasons and just leaves it as is because they (and perhaps its the streaming format) tends to overplay things when they are popular. There’s something really special about limited amounts of things- I think that’s one of the reasons Firefly is remembered so fondly- and I’ve always found it more memorable to have something with closure rather than sequel! sequel! hang on, another sequel! It just cheapens the product. I don’t want fifty versions of Maniac. I want one version of Maniac to inspire and perhaps induce the development of more works like it.