Owen Millgrim (Jonah Hill) is a paranoid schizophrenic and the black sheep of a family crumbling under the weight of a scandal. He joins a drug trial with the hopes of finding the happiness (and peace) that has eluded him for so long. While there he meets Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), a drug addict running from her reality. She also ends up in the drug trial looking for more of the drugs that have successfully helped her run for this long. This is Maniac, Netflix’s latest attempt at prestigious television. Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) brought the Norwegian TV series to the states in the form of a limited series that currently has everyone’s attention, that is due in part to people not exactly knowing how to digest the trippy genre switching pharmaceutical drug trial. The question that really matters around the series is, does it work?
We have seen this model for prestigious TV work recently in the past. Get critically acclaimed showrunners and have them shoot a show beautifully so it looks as if it belongs on the big screen. Bring in big Hollywood names all throughout the cast, especially at the top of the bill. The cherry on top is the high-minded concept that is simultaneously shining a light on something that is often overlooked and weaving relevant, everyday themes throughout. The formula is there. While, admittedly, this is much easier said than done, there is a blueprint and Maniac seems to have put it to use. To answer the most important question for this series (or any), yes it works, for the most part.
The best part of Maniac is its leads, which should be no surprise to anyone. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are amongst the most talented young actors in all of Hollywood. Fukunaga and Somerville’s world let them showcase that at the highest-level possible. The characters of Owen and Annie themselves leave enough room for these two stars to shine but it’s the dream sequences where the actors really get to play and show even more of their incredible talent. Multiple genres are brought into this series and by the end each actor has played five different characters while never losing continuity. Some of the credit for that is due to Stone and Hill. Their chemistry is excellent (again, not much of a surprise) and their charisma is magnetic. It doesn’t matter if they’re elves, hawks or a married couple in Long Island trying to steal a lemur. These two pop on screen and you are invested in everything that they are doing.
The actors shined the most when they were in the retro near future that is their reality. This is when we can really see what they can do and it was where I was the most interested. The dream sequences were fun but the drug trial is where the most compelling acting was happening. Hill has become one of my favorite actors and it’s because of roles like Owen Millgrim. This is a more reserved and internal performance. A lot is done behind his eyes and on his face. He is a paranoid schizophrenic and that is physically present. Having to constantly battle with what is real and what isn’t would wear someone out, especially if that person’s family was supporting him/her. This is present on Owen at all times and it immediately creates a connection point because you can’t help but sympathize with him. As he enters the trial and begins the process of “therapy” the sympathy only increases because you get to see more of what he was dealing with. Hill gave a sympathetic and compelling performance that shines a proper light on mental illness and what people with mental illness struggle with.
Similar to Hill, Emma Stone absolutely destroys her role as Annie Landsberg. Through the first episode and a half I wasn’t sure I liked what she was doing and I questioned if it was working. Her as a drug addict was difficult at first because naturally you want to root for Emma Stone but early on it’s hard. As her backstory starts to fill in and her character starts to take shape a bit more, she really starts to shine. She brings a lot of nuance to Annie and very quickly turns a pretty bad person into a sympathetic one. Her moments with Hill really popped for me but I enjoyed her the most in the dream sequences. She embraced each of the strange characters given to her in a real fun way. She injected the fun that Maniac needed exactly when it was needed.
While the top of the bill is flawless, the supporting characters are a bit of a mixed bag. The names are great but some of the performances don’t live up to the expectation, most notably Justin Theroux. He plays Dr. James K. Mantleray and joins the drug trial shortly after the participants arrive. Nothing about this performance worked for me. Admittedly I’m not the biggest fan of Theroux but he was the lowest point of Maniac for me. His character was too big for the show and his performance didn’t seem to fit in all that well. He fills in for Dr. Muramoto (Rome Kanda) which was unfortunate because I was much more interested in the latter. Muramoto made sense in the midst of what was going on, Mantleray did not. Theroux went for it with this performance but it didn’t land. Along those same lines is Sally Field. For the most part Field’s role as Dr. Greta Mantleray worked. She is an incredible actress and at times she was very compelling. She added to the fun of the dream sequences and had some good moments in the real world. Where her performance didn’t work was with her son, James Mantleray. In those same scenes where his performance was too big, Fields suffered from the same problem. By the end of the series I was tired of seeing the two of them together because they were taking away from the compelling parts of the show.
The rest of the supporting cast was great, especially Billy Magnussen as Jed Millgrim and Sonoya Mizuno as Dr. Azumi Fujita. The latter stuck out to me even more so because a lot of her scenes were with the Mantlerays. In the midst of scenes that didn’t work, I found her to be very compelling. Mizuno shined on screen. This is the most I’ve seen her do and I’d like to see her do more. She is a good actress and she did well throughout Maniac. Magnussen was the stand out of the supporting cast. He was the opposite of Theroux because his big performance worked. He brought so much charisma and energy to a relatively small role. I couldn’t take my eyes off him when he was on screen and he added a lot to the story. As a whole the supporting cast was a net positive. The smaller supporting performances added a lot to the show as well and helped round out the story. The casting for Maniac was pretty strong and some of the failures with the supporting actors could easily be attributed to the screenplay, not just the performers.
Fukunaga and Somerville are the co-creators of Maniac and are responsible for most of the writing in the series. There is also a team of writers that contributed throughout. Overall, this worked out pretty well, Maniac is a well-written show. It does a great job of balancing what is reality and what isn’t. This can be a challenging thing to portray in way that makes sense. Maniac does a good job of distinguishing when we are in reality and when we are not. The dream sequences are bigger and feel more cinematic. Everything seems to be turned up a notch when they are in a dream and that works from a viewers perspective because I don’t have to keep wondering what is real and what isn’t. Another aspect of the dream sequences that works are the ties into the larger themes. Fukunaga and Somerville use the dream sequences to stand alone as entertaining television and to support an overarching theme. This is a difficult balance to find but it is found beautifully in each sequence. This also helps on a rewatch because there are little nuggets that can be found each time that make the show even more satisfying.
Where the writing falls short is with its characters. As I stated earlier some of the characters are a bit rough. That is due in part to the writing. Some of the characters and their relationships to each other are odd. The Mantleray family dynamic was extremely confusing to me and didn’t seem to be tied to anything tangible. It was just an over the top version of a poor family dynamic that didn’t land. It also didn’t fit into the overall story; it felt more like a distraction than anything else. Maniac also seemed to be far too interested in the absurd. There were elements of the show that were weird just for the sake of being weird. The lack of rules in the dream sequences almost proved to be a detriment because there were a few times that went too far and didn’t tie into what was happening. As with the supporting cast, the writing was a net positive but there were a few times when the show went off the rails and it didn’t work.
What did work was Fukunaga’s direction. He presented a world that made sense and worked. It was an interesting world that was developed very well. You get a feel for their Manhattan and how it works pretty quickly. They have advanced past where we are now but also seem to be stuck aesthically in the early 90s. There is a heavy “Blade Runner” influence in Maniac, that only adds into the world building because if provides a reference. It is also a beautifully shot. Fukunaga has an incredible eye and brought forth so many jaw dropping shots. Maniac is one of the best looking shows of the year and with an increased trend of great looking TV shows it’s all the more impressive that Maniac’s cinematography stands out. It is also an easy show to watch. The mixture of an easily digestible runtime (about 40 minutes per episode) and switching genres, the show is an easy sit. You’re off balance in a good way because you don’t exactly know what to expect from each episode. By the time you’ve gotten comfortable in a world, you’re taken to another one.
Maniac is an interesting show. Minus a few bumps along the way the show is very well done. When it misses, it misses in curious ways but when it hits, it hits so big. The show is at its best when it’s dealing with its main characters. There is so much packed into those two characters and their stories that everyone can take something else away from it. Maniac is worth your time because of the leads alone. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are so good. Just seeing their work is why this show is a must watch. Then add in some good direction and interesting storytelling; at the very least you’ll be thinking. Good stories are thought provoking. Maniac is thought provoking and that’s why it works.
Drama 10 episdoes (10 reviewed) Netflix, September 21st Creators: Cary Fukunaga & Patrick Somerville Starring: Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Sonoya Mizuno, Justin Theroux & Sally Field