'Maniac' follows the story of two strangers who meet during a voluntary drug trial. The show excels thematically, truly taking us along on the characters' pharmaceutically driven journeys.
'Maniac' primarily follows two characters who are each struggling with their own personal brand of inner demons; Owen, played by Jonah Hill, troubled with schizophrenic hallucinations, family drama and a love lost; and Annie, played by Emma Stone, a defensive soul burdened with some dark regrets and a rootless life. Their paths cross at a voluntary drug trial which sees them explore their inner worlds, fatefully intertwined, and transmute their pain into personal growth. The show appears to be set in the present day or near future, using futuristic technology but with a distinctly dated, potentially 80s feel and a Japanese aesthetic. This makes for a unique visual set up right from the start.
The show excels thematically, truly taking us along on the characters' pharmaceutically driven journeys. Together, we visit various, enigmatic, alternative storylines which each represent aspects of the characters' personal traumas. These alternate realities have us visit different times and places, providing huge variety between each episode. We explore the often-painful complexities of life from which none of us are spared, not even those wearing the greatest bravado or composure. 'Maniac' raises questions like can machines mourn and can empathy be programmed?
On a more personal level, it asks why do some people become addicted to revisiting their traumas or feel they don't deserve to move forward and what is normal, anyway? They debunk the typical assumptions and platitudes of psychiatry and industries that “sell happiness”. They challenge how much we can trust the systems developed to help us, from commercial pop therapy to the most “elegant” solutions which may one day transpire to be just as flawed as the archaic methods which were historically equally revered. Perhaps this is why they combine futuristic technology with a dated aesthetic – to question its perfection.
Symbolism is used in this way throughout the show. For example, the recurring Rubik's cube, used as a nod to the search for meaning and pattern within the chaos. We also see various instances of life “within” technology, for example, machines that seem to speak with the voice and consciousness of a human and a man who lives within a self-contained machine reminiscent of a refrigerator.
With regard to the writing and the pace, the show tactfully balances leaving questions unanswered with respectfully allowing us to fill in the gaps.
The soundtrack is another tool which is used well, bringing a sense of positivity and hope where appropriate.
Finally, the acting successfully portrays the characters, Annie, Owen, and the others we meet along the way, as likable, relatable and tangible, which is no small feat.
Overall, the show is suited to those who enjoy material that is thematically and symbolically rich or those who are simply looking for something extremely novel. It is difficult to fault this show other than to say it may not be for everyone. Unlike other shows where personal transformation happens as a corollary, in 'Maniac' it is the central premise upon which all else is contingent. However, it seems that the exploration of alternate realities leaves something for everyone. Show-runner, Patrick Somerville has stated that the show was always intended to be limited and will not be continuing beyond its 10 episodes. This itself brings a certain preciousness to what the show has achieved and there is a satisfaction to this journey's end.
Watch Maniac now on Netflix!