'Maniac': TV Review

A visual delight, with minor trips.
9/21/2018

There's a battle of style against substance in Netflix's new series, but director Cary Fukunaga makes it a visual joy ride and gets winning performances from Emma Stone, Justin Theroux and Jonah Hill.

There are core existential themes in Netflix's new star-studded limited-series Maniac — mental illness, unhappiness, loneliness, the constraints of family and the notion of the pursuit of happiness as an illusion — that, depending on your response, are either adequately and entertainingly mined or get a little lost under the impressive visual mayhem on the surface.

Maniac is a series that doesn't hide the fact that it has inverted television's tradition of being a writer's medium first, elevating the prodigious talents of director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation) above those of creator and writer Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers, The Bridge), adapting from a Norwegian series of the same title.

There's no fault in that — the visuals in Maniac were always going to be the first thing anyone talked about, and probably rightly so. The series is an unfettered, trippy deep dive into the vast potential of psychotropic drugs and the staggering visual possibilities of an altered mind — subjects that already have been heroically visualized by Noah Hawley on FX's Legion.

The issue for Maniac is whether all of the high gloss and megawatt star turns can leave room for the big ideas to land. Mental illness shouldn't just be a jumping-off point for directors to create a playground and, thankfully, there's enough attention to those aforementioned existential issues here to not leave the viewer feeling totally abandoned while the series unspools.

An argument can be made that other visually appealing shows like The Leftovers or Mr. Robot (and Amazon's upcoming series from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, Homecoming) take a more effectively serious approach to these topics. Your results may vary depending on how important it is to you to have mental illness, grief, unhappiness and other important Big Ideas fully explored via characters you come to love.

This theory will be put to the test in the middle stretches of the 10-episode run of Maniac, where Fukunaga truly gets unleashed. It's there where aesthetics tend to win over sustained attention to the core issues of the series — but there's no denying that it's hard to look away from almost any portion of what's going on.

Jonah Hill plays Owen Milgrim, whose mental illness has alienated him from his extremely wealthy Manhattan family (headed by patriarch Gabriel Byrne): The four other sons seem perfect and untroubled, and Owen's belief that he can see other people and is part of a larger plot to save the world is an issue the clan wants swept under the carpet. Annie, played by Emma Stone (magnificent at every turn here), is running away from a deep family tragedy that drives her, like Owen, to participate in a sketchy pharmaceutical study where the end goal is to erase things like mental illness and unhappy memories, and rewire patients' brains with three pills (labeled "A," "B" and "C").

The experiment is essentially run by an emotional supercomputer called "GRTA," known as "Gerty" by her creators (one of whom is played by Sonoya Mizuno of Crazy Rich Asians). The mind-altering pharmacological/computer plan was conceived by Dr. James Mantleray (Justin Theroux in a thrill ride of a performance that makes his mental traumas on The Leftovers seem tame). Also contributing to the experiment is Dr. Muramoto (Rome Kanda, scene-stealing wonderfully). Viewers learn early not to trust the skills of either doctor.

New York is portrayed by Fukunaga partly as an early computer-age-1980s cosmopolis and partly as a futuristic nightmare where broke residents sell themselves to "Ad Buddies" (your bills get paid but Ad Buddy employees travel everywhere with you, bombarding you with annoying advertisements) and "Friend Proxies" exist to role-play away the alienation of big-city life. This New York is less dystopian than emotionally destructive and, let's be honest, kind of depressing.

Against that background the drug trials for Owen and Annie begin, sending each into successively weird journeys that allow the episodes to switch among genres (suburban rom-com, a stately story of 1940s thieves, a tale featuring elves, etc.) that are sometimes too on the nose as both fugue states reflective of their illnesses or metaphors for the human condition. For the most part, those creative detours from Fukunaga are opportunities for the enormous cast (Sally Field, Jemima Kirke, Julia Garner and others) to be repertory players and show off their skills — some to better effect than others.

Hill works best as the lost soul we meet at the beginning of the series, mostly because he's so adept at showing, through his placid face and quiet voice (which doesn't make him meek — he's very direct about the truths he sees around him in his dysfunctional family), that surviving in this world is tough for people who feel; and yes, for people whose mental illness perhaps makes them feel too much. When Somerville and Fukunaga put him in more fantastical realms, he's less effective. But that might have something to do with how often Owen's sad visage stands in for what's going on inside his head; when Maniac has more fun in these other dream scenarios, asking Owen to essentially be a different and temporarily happier person, some of the magnitude of the larger point is lost. (It also is difficult for any actor to stand out alongside Stone's virtuoso, more naturalistic performance.)

Whether the bigger issues of Maniac connect in the end may not matter to some viewers because the trip-tastic journey there, via Fukunaga's bravura talents, is an entertaining diversion. In either case, Netflix has yet another series people are bound to be buzzing about.

Cast: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sally Field, Sonoya Mizuno, Rome Kanda, Gabriel Byrne, Julia Garner, Billy Magnussen, Trudie Styler, Jemima Kirke
Created and written by: Patrick Somerville
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)