Netflix's new show 'Maniac' is flawed, but beautifully so
Netflix's latest takes you on an incredible journey that hits you with a tsunami of emotions you don't really know what to do with.
(Warning: Several potential spoilers ahead)
There was quite a bit of anticipation surrounding Netflix's 'Maniac.' The psychological dark comedy-drama television saw the reunion of Jonah Hill and Emma Stone on the small screen, with the pair previously having acted together more than a decade ago in 'Superbad.' One an Oscar nominee, the other an Oscar winner, would take a journey into the inner depths of their mind in a woozy, psychedelic retro-future setting, and who better to depict this than Cary Joji Fukunaga, who has, in the past, worked on the likes of 'The Alienist,' 'True Detective,' and 'It.'
It's taken humanity millennia to accept that depression is a disease that afflicts someone and not just a phase that comes and goes as it pleases. One can't just magically ask the patient to be happy and expect it to impact a way of thinking that has become ingrained to the point where little else makes sense. There isn't a panacea for it either, as much as all the ads on the television and the internet will have you believe. Except, that's exactly what Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, and Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) insist, that "the mind can be solved" and that all pain can be eradicated.
Drawn to this trial are two equally flawed human beings. Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) is one of the sons in a wealthy family, though unlike the others, he often sees things that are not there. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Owen has stopped taking his medication, and when we first see him, he's talking to an imaginary rendition of a brother he wishes he always had who gives him quests to save the world.
In reality, however, Owen finds himself a key witness in a court case where his real brother, Jed (Billy Magnussen), has been accused of sexual assault. He agrees to perjure himself for the sake of the family, though it's quite clear that his condition has always meant he was the outcast. In one scene during a gathering at his boyhood residence, he walks across a large family portrait where he's conspicuously missing. All he wants to do is belong in a world that, to him, has always seemed unwelcoming, and as a hail mary, he decides the trial may give him his shot at recovery, and at becoming 'normal.'
Intertwining with his story is Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), who is clinically depressed and who punishes herself with a drug that sees her relive the worst moment of her life over and over again only because it gives her one more chance to converse with a sister who tragically passed away because of her mistake. Her dysfunctional relationship with an absent mother saw her emotionally stunted as an adult and unable to connect to any other human being. And while she wants to move on, her motivations to get into the pharmaceutical trial are a little more sinister compared to Owen's.
Both find themselves accepted into the trial, with Owen drawn to Annie because of one of his delusions that insisted she was the key to saving the world. It's inside Neberdine Pharmaceutical that we meet some of the show's other brilliant side acts. First, there's Dr. Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), a scientist who runs the NPB experiment, but who finds herself in a puzzling predicament following the death of her partner and superior, Dr. Robert Muramuto (Rome Kanda). Never one to become flustered, she nonetheless has to put aside her own fears of the outside world to call upon Dr. James K. Mantleray for help.
The latter, while a genius neuro pharmacist, has mommy issues bordering on an Oedipus complex. So many mommy issues, in fact, that he's addicted to a masturbation device — which Azumi, unfortunately, walks in on him using — and has named the culmination of his life's work GRTA, after his mother Dr. Greta Mantleray. GRTA, lovingly referred to as Gertie, is an endearingly sentient AI who has the same whims and fallacies as her human creators, and who goes into a suicidal depression after the love of her life, Robert, dies. All of them are so fantastical and bizarre you do question the sheer audacity of it all.
But it's these thoroughly distorted, larger-than-life characters that make the show so different, so enjoyable. In an oversaturated landscape of futuristic shows that 'Maniac' finds itself in, how many could you say don't take themselves too seriously? There's no unnecessary neo-noir-like darkness that accompanies the pain and suffering that follows these characters. Instead, Fukunaga plunges audiences into a dazzling world of simulated dreams that sees our heroes make personal discoveries while simultaneously laying bare their innermost demons. It's with this contrast that 'Maniac' lets you first dip your feet in the water before slapping you in the face with a tsunami of sensations you don't really know what to do with.
The surreal, almost dystopian world helps put a lot of what Owen and Annie are going through into a bit of perspective as well, and it's the healthy dose of irony with which 'Maniac' delivers its punches that continually strikes a chord. Whether it's the human ad buddies, the animatronic chess-playing koala, or the service that provides people with proxy friends, there's never a moment where it fails to remind you how impersonal and apathetic the world has become. Humans have forever been social animals, so does hope remain when that last bastion falls?
'Maniac' answers with an emphatic yes. While Owen and Annie, to their disappointment, find the trial wasn't all it was made out to be, the latter understands that the bond they forged while holed inside NPB was real. In an entirely wholesome, heart-warming conclusion, Annie ditches a man she hired to be a fake Owen when she realizes he was the first true friend she made in a very long time. She then breaks into his psychiatric facility — which he's admitted into after sabotaging his brother's trial — and convinces him that there's nothing wrong with him, and that his imperfections are what made him unique. What began as a voyage into the recesses of the psyche, later emerged as a touching tribute to the power of human connection, feat two exemplary performances from Hollywood's finest.
Never once does the show pretend to be something it's not. There's no pseudo-intellectual pop psychology that claims to have figured out the secret to all your problems, and nor does it preach to you from some lofty pedestal of self-indulgence. It's a startlingly accurate portrait of depression and mental illness, and the vices that accompany it, that could give 'Bojack Horseman' a run for its money. Its 10 episodes, each wildly fluctuating in length and tone, takes you go through a rollercoaster of emotions — pain, melancholy, annoyance, confusion, and on those rare occasions, fleeting moments of joy — to deliver what is a quite poignant message: Yes, the mind is flawed, but don't run away from it. Embrace it.