Who Am I This Time?

watching “maniac” on netflix

How to briefly summarize Maniac? Let me begin by saying this—it’s Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, playing five parts apiece, in a ten-episode miniseries set in a retro-future where computers are sentient but line printers and fax are still in widespread use. There are multiple crisscrossing realities that crisscross and are either extended psychoses or imprints of the cosmic connection of all living things. It’s weird and wonderful, an entirely new kind of sci-fi influenced equally by Kubrick and Charlie Kaufman and Tolkien and Scorsese and Milos Forman and Mike Nichols and Judd Apatow. It’s a genre study par excellence. It’s also deeply flawed, and occasionally uneven, and though the pseudoscience is perfectly conceived, many of the major plot points don’t really make sense. Also, Justin Theroux plays Dr. James Mantleray, a mama’s boy neurochemist with a porn addiction and a hairpiece. Needless to say by the time it was over I never wanted it to end.

Maniac is a Netflix series that dropped Sept. 21 based on the Norwegian series of the same name. It’s written by Patrick Somerville of The Leftovers and directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga of the first season of True Detective (Thank God for both of them, incidentally, because nobody but Kubrick could have directed it and anyone else but Kaufman would’ve gone insane trying to write it). It’s a series designed for bingeing, but is practically unbingeable, partly because of Fukanaga’s masterful sprinkling of detail over every perfect frame, but mostly because every episode takes a day to mentally unpack. In that sense it’s like Noah Hawley’s Legion on FX, with which it also shares an ’80s/World of Tomorrow aesthetic. However, Maniac is better, because its layering of dimensions and thought worlds is less hollow than that FX superhero program. It’s designed instead to highlight the kind of joyfully gung-ho and mystically proto-Buddhist sense of humanity at its center.

Stone and Hill play entrants in Mantleray’s pharmaceutical drug trial. The drug program is called ULP, and with the help of a computer called GRTA (Gertie, for short), it’s designed to target the trauma centers of the human brain and eliminate the need for talk therapy altogether. Good for everyone except the therapists, like Mantleray’s mother, Greta (Sally Field), who, one imagines, will wind up peddling nickle-insight alongside the squeegee men at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel. How does Gertie (also played by Field) do the job? By thrusting her human lab rats into elaborate filmic dream worlds (or “reflections,” as the show’s terminology would have it) that mimic their most wounding memories, of course. Every episode, those who’ve joined the experiment are strapped to chairs between microwave panels and transported, it would seem, to entirely different TV shows. Hill’s character, Owen, the rejected scion of a manufacturing empire, spends some time as a 1940s stage magician/art thief/security consultant at an Agatha Christie-like upstate séance (this is one of the show’s least-complicated scenarios). Stone’s pill-popping guilt monster, Annie, in turn, has a brief tenure in a Peter Jackson fantasia as a half-elf who tried to burn her protruding ears off. And who can blame her? Middle Earth chic is so 2003.

Some of these fantasies are less engaging than others.  But what’s so rewarding about Maniac is that the fantasies aren’t really the point. They’re just there to lull the audience into an awed sense of stupefaction before blinding us with a final sequence that renders it a completely different story than we’ve been led to believe. Are names popping up in real life that we’ve assumed only existed in the reflections? Are strangely familiar animals appearing in the shallow foreground? The sci-fi that came before writer Somerville (2001: A Space Odyssey) would have us think that the fact Annie and Owen keep appearing in each other’s dreams has a strictly in-world explanation—Gertie’s gone crazy, and is bending their minds’ wavelengths together, or whatever. But the show ends with a series of visual pairings that seem to prove that the connection is more spiritual than scientific. And similar to the deeply human endings to many of Kaufman’s films, this one doesn’t feel like bullshit.

It’s hard to decide whether Stone or Hill is better on this show. They keep trading the baton over the course of the ten episodes. First Annie, separated from her sister by force, pounds the inside of the window of the pickup truck in which she’s trapped, and your heart breaks a little. Then Owen, in one of his dreamscapes, is suddenly a supposedly Icelandic spy with an untraceable accent, who fires wildly down a hallway and shouts triumphantly, “I killed many men!” For the first time since The Wolf of Wall Street, Hill is having fun, and your heart’s pretty much okay—until Stone comes along and breaks it again. It’s a tag-team effort.

Maniac is many things, by its very nature, and that’s a tightrope to walk for any show.  Somewhere near the middle, in the midst of your altogether necessary mulling-over sessions, you might ask yourself why you want to go on watching these people, all so spiritually ugly, all so seemingly irrevocably broken. But it’s worth it. The ULP trial promises it can fix people, and the biggest surprise of the show is that, indirectly, and with the vital catalyst of unselfish humanity, it actually works. It’s not like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a conceivable blueprint for eventual happiness. It’s not, like 2001, supremely revolutionary.  It’s an artistically complete framework that leaves one with the impression that, though we may travel insane and disparate paths to get there, the likelihood is we can all get to something close to okay. It’s great television. Strap in.