Maniac is as much fun as getting your head examined. The miserable Netflix miniseries, debuting Sept. 21, could only have been made in 2018. Movie stars, elaborate set pieces, a big-looking budget, indescribable concept, every genre imaginable wrapped up into a sci-fi fantasy romcom dramedic spoof plus feels: Think how far TV had to evolve to produce ponderous dreck like this. Years ago, we complained how networks sanded away all their project’s sharp edges. Now, unfettered creative freedom shall bestow upon us a misshapen behemoth of unconditional sharpness.
The 10-episode series has a glossy look, big existential ambitions. It begins with a montage describing the history of everything, with the voice of Justin Theroux narrating phrases like “Two billion years ago: an amoeba!” and “An infinite cosmic orgy!” and “Back to our amoeba!” From there we shift to a near-future New York, where life itself looks pretty well Uberized. Friend Proxies will pretend to like you for a fee, which is probably what being famous feels like. Human pop-ups called Ad Buddies sit next to subway commuters blabbing about products. (Can you imagine? Talking on the subway?) Twentysomething striver Annie (Emma Stone) licenses her face to a stock photo service and winds up in advertisements she makes no money from, also probably what being famous feels like.
Nifty idea, to build a dystopia out of the gig economy. Niftier, too, if Maniac were just Justin Theroux offering caffeinated director’s commentary on what looks like Episode 8 of Twin Peaks crossed with the dinosaur scene from Tree of Life. Unfortunately, Jonah Hill, the two-time Oscar nominee takes center stage in Maniac’s first episode, playing Owen Milgrim, a sadsack Richie Rich with a history of psychosis and a monotonous expression of dazed melancholy. The Milgrims are contempo aristocrats with a family company suffering a very trendy sex scandal. Owen’s brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) did something bad, probably, and needs Owen to provide him with an alibi. Meanwhile, Owen’s in love with Jed’s lady (Jemima Kirke, criminally wasted). And he just lost his job.
Owen’s not handling all this stress too well. He sees things. Visions — or are they??? — provoke him towards a grand destiny. One hallucination — or could it be realiteeeeeeeee??? — resembles a mustached double of his brother. “We’ve been chosen to save the world,” says the shadow Jed.
Ah, the madness of young men who think their cruel fate is to save everything! The reduced moral mathematics of the superhero era have produced a subgenre of deconstruction, from the dark anti-heroic meditations in Mr. Robot and Legion to the playfully anti-individualist hero’s journeys underpinning Adventure Time and Steven Universe. Owen believes he’s received a higher calling. He keeps seeing a blonde woman out of the corner of his eye, on every second-screen experience. And when he signs up for a drug trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, would you believe the blonde woman is there? It’s Annie, in the flesh! “I’m going to save the world!” Owen promises her.
But then episode 2 flips backwards, providing the backstory for Annie. She’s another flavor of sadsack, a barely employed sponger with a burgeoning drug addiction. There’s a tragedy in her past that involves her sister Ellie (Julia Garner), and Annie has never quite gotten over the residual psychic trauma. Episode 2 also introduces a running motif about Don Quixote, an excruciatingly theme-shouting plot element that confirms someone working on Maniac has heard of novels.
Hard to say precisely what’s accomplished with these parallel prologues, besides proving this show sure can tell. The story properly begins with Neberdine’s drug trial, a psychological experiment merging computer science with biochemistry. I worry about spoiling too much, although anyone who saw Inception got spoiled eight years ago. Like Christopher Nolan’s thriller, Maniac sends its characters reality-hopping through different virtual-sleepy scenarios, though Maniac has more wigs. Annie and Owen live through a retro-Hollywood heist thriller, an ‘80s-looking Southern neo-noir, and other worlds ever more fantastical.
The vibe could be playful, but director Cary Fukunaga shoots the dreamscapes with an overdetermined chilly cool, directorial without feeling cinematic. These fantasies don’t feel character-generated. Instead, it’s a series of what-ifs, the actors withstanding sketches forced upon them. What about Jonah Hill as a gangster covered in tattoos? What if Emma Stone were a fantasy character? It’s a bunch of “multi-reality brain magic s—,” Annie says, which I guarantee was the elevator pitch.
And the story-splitting nature of Maniac gives the stars the rare opportunity to give several bad performances in one project. Hill defaults his face into a sadface emoji; it’s the kind of serious actor performance comedians used to give before everyone assumed comedians were serious. Stone goes the opposite route, fully committing to disparate personalities, Old Hollywood Glam, matriarchal white trash, superspy cool. Fun enough, if you pretend you’re watching the star host an episode of Saturday Night Live where every idea was a parody. But where Owen is a passive bore, Annie is an aggressive bore, draped in the kind of perpetual origin-story sadness that makes certain Batman movies unbearable.
The mere fact of Jonah Hill and Emma Stone starring in a Netflix miniseries is some part of the appeal here. But their dynamic sinks the show; they successfully lack chemistry in every universe. The only real fun in Maniac comes from the supporting duo. Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) plays Dr. Azumi Fujita, the brilliant scientist who built “the most sophisticated megacomputer ever created.” Fujita’s almost a Wes Anderson character, with a meticulous bob and glasses the size of a sophisticated megacomputer, but Mizuno’s deadpan cool locates some dry comedy amidst Manic’s antic farce. She’s counterbalanced by Theroux, who plays fellow scientist Dr. James K. Mantleray like a screwball comedy character living through a Freudian nightmare. Theroux has been handsome ever since he stopped aging twenty years ago — and in Maniac he’s a manboy built out of flopsweat, coming constantly undone like the outrageous toupee Mantleray can barely hide.
Did I mention Sally Field? She pops up in a mysterious role (or two, or four) that requires her to deliver the line “Who will be tonight’s astral nodes?” The material with Field, Theroux, and Mizuno feels half-mad, playfully campy. (There’s a depressed computer.) But it’s backgrounded behind Owen and Annie, whose experiences in the experiment are ultimately just series of fetch quests, repetitive pursuits of some grand epiphany. “It’s the same story every time, and I am sick of it,” Annie says near the end. Accurate! At one point, on a break between dreams, they have to analyze their most recent simulation, like explain precisely what did it mean. And then you’re literally watching characters on a TV show explain the themes of their adventures. If I wanted that, I’d watch more Westworld.
I’m not sure what went wrong. On paper, “multi-reality brain magic s—” sounds right up my street. But Maniac’s more fun to describe than experience. Fukunaga directs every episode, and there’s no sense here that he’s found a style of his own in the years since True Detective. He clearly likes Terry Gilliam, but Maniac is what would happen if the Brazil director took every studio note about making his characters nicer. Maniac creator Patrick Somerville worked on The Leftovers and seems to be aiming for that great series’ unique blend of fantastical myth and humane dark comedy. But where The Leftovers successfully turned supporting roles into three-dimensional showcase star turns, this series reduces even the major characters to bare backstory essentials, poses of emotion. Somerville adapted Maniac from Norwegian series, which is also on Netflix. I assume it’s better, because everything is in Norway.
It’s possible that the sheer manic energy of Maniac’s middle chapters will work for some people. The narrative zigzags with a brazen lack of purpose. Someone goes blind from hysteria. Someone else transforms into a bird. But as a story about counterfeit realities, Maniac feels very late to a party all the cool kids left ages ago. Forget that Inception comparison. Certain aspects of Maniac are pulled right out of freaking Reverie, NBC’s goofy attempt to proceduralize simulation theory. Reverie also had a lead character suffering from sister-related flashback trauma, and shared the foundational notion that psychic traumas could be solved in the realm of digitality.
And that’s the worst thing about Maniac. For all its manic poses and deflationary snark, it’s ultimately patronizingly sentimental. In a weird but endlessly obvious way, Annie and Owen actually were destined to meet. Owen is kind of a hero. Annie does need to get over her trauma using science. In the molten core beneath Maniac’s colorblasted stylistics, this is a story about two sad young people hopefully learning to be less sad with a little help from a gigantic megacorporation. It’s a throwback indie quirkfest merged with a totalitarian dose of hail-the-algorithm triumphalism. Maniac asks big questions about reality, and then settles for the limpest possible cinematic representations of that reality. (There is, lord help us, a climactic courtroom scene.) And lest you ever think Maniac is too shallow, it one-ups the running Don Quixote subplot with a quote from René Magritte’s Treachery of Images. My French is rusty, but: Ceci n’est pas une good tv show. C-