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Netflix’s new limited series Maniac defies the notion of world-building, rooted as it is in a series of trippy, hallucinated fantasy settings created in the minds of protagonists Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) under the influence of psychotropic drugs.
But before all of that, the 10-episode drama grounds its story in a version of New York that feels both familiar and disorienting, both dated and futuristic. Computer technology with the unique style of the 1980s exists alongside dystopian riffs on privacy fears and the gig economy: If you’re broke, you can sell yourself to an “Ad Buddy,” whereby your bills get paid in exchange for a person accompanying you everywhere and spouting advertisements, like a human pop-up you can’t close.
Patrick Somerville, who wrote all 10 episodes of the drama, told The Hollywood Reporter that this bleak vision of New York was foundational to how he and new James Bond director Cary Joji Fukunaga approached Maniac.
“One of the first conversations Cary and I had about the show was about the representation of reality — not just the delusional landscapes, but the actual reality of the show — being a little off, and a little heightened. We knew that we wanted to have this absurdist tone where anything is possible, but the emotional stakes were relatable. To me, it’s our zeitgeist, but it’s just a different history of technology. It’s the universe where Betamax won and Steve Jobs got hit by a bus, or where a number of arbitrary things led to a slightly different series of events between the early 1980s and now.”
In one standout absurdist moment in this wonky New York, a tour guide points out a winged “Statue of Extra Liberty” across the water (seen above). “New York needed more liberty!” Somerville joked, before offering a clarification. “I saw some people writing about it, and that is actually not the harbor. The camera is pointing north in that shot, so in the Maniac world, the Statue of Liberty still exists, and the Statue of Extra Liberty also exists. Someone decided that we needed another one.”
The specific revelation that Owen spends 87 percent of his income on rent for a tiny, terrible apartment is likely to resonate with many an urban viewer. “That’s basically normal, right?” Somerville said grimly. “It’s so hard to live in huge cities in the world now, and it’s just going to be harder and harder, so that just felt very relatable.” Ditto the Ad Buddy, a nightmarish innovation for all involved. “That was one of the first things I wrote, just the idea that someone could make their way across the city via advertising, instead of money, and that that person was fucking miserable too. The person whose job it was to be the Ad Buddy is just horribly alone, and broke.”
Somerville added that the surreal setting played a crucial role in balancing the tone of the show, and in setting it apart from the Norwegian series on which it’s based. “We knew that the source of the humor in Maniac was not going to be mental illness. There was something about the set-up of the Norwegian show that seemed to suggest that jokes come out of that, and we didn’t want to do that. So, we wanted this heightened world also just to give us some comic energy, and some comic possibilities in the background of these other stories that are playing out.”
Maniac is now streaming on Netflix.
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