In an oddball future, a future where you can avoid paying for things by listening to a certain number of ads, and where tiny robots patrol the streets, looking for poop to scoop, two broken people enter an experimental drug trial. One, Owen, is the neglected, schizophrenic son of a wealthy Manhattan family. He is being forced to lie under oath to prevent his brother from going to jail. Another, Annie, is a selfish, mean-spirited drug addict, who still feels guilt over having contributed to her sister’s death. Owen is there for the money. Annie is there for the drugs. But regardless of why they came, the head of the program, Dr. James Mantleray and his partner, Dr. Azumi Fujita, are confident that their drugs will solve ALL, yes, all, of their patients’ personal problems. But what happens when the computer administering the trial develops emotions and begins messing with the process? James and Azumi will be forced to bring in the former’s awful mother, whom the computer is modeled off of, while the patients will have to contend with a series of strange visions and increasingly surreal simulations.
Maniac is a TV show I never would have heard of were it not for my friend, the supremely talented actress and dancer Momoko Judy Abe. Earlier this year, she told me she had a supporting role on a Netflix show that Cary Fukunaga was directing, and that Emma Stone and Jonah Hill were starring in, but didn’t say anything else. (Not allowed to). Then, a few months later, I saw an ad for Maniac, which mentioned that it was from Cary Fukunaga, and showed Stone and Hill as the leads, and I realized that this was what Momoko was referring to. So as soon as it hit the streaming platform, I cued it up. I figured, even if it’s bad, I can at least say I know someone who was involved with it. And, I’ll be honest; it was a lot of fun seeing Momoko onscreen. She doesn’t have many lines, but she’s featured in all but one episode, standing behind Sonoya Mizuno, aka Dr. Fujita, as one of her assistants. Hopefully, this role will allow her to be in bigger projects, where she can show off her immense range, and fantastic dance skills. But I realize that I haven’t actually said anything about the show. That’s because my feelings on it are pretty mixed.
As a work of art, it’s definitely not without merit. The cinematography, the music, and especially the production design, are superb, working together to create a strange, but oddly believable vision of the future. There are so many weird little details in it, I already mentioned the ads, and poop scoop drones, that make this show’s reality feel off kilter and unique. There are services that offer “friends for hire,” you can play chess with mechanical koala bears, and everything in the labs looks like it was pulled straight out of an 80s anime. The drug trial setup also serves as a framing device to a series of vignettes, each of which acts as a parody or send-up of a particular genre. In one episode, for instance, while under the influence of anesthesia, Stone and Hill hallucinate that their in an 80s sitcom, trying to steal a monkey from some gangsters. In another, they dream that they’re in a fantasy movie, complete with elves, wizards and dragons. And as distracting and disjointed as some of these vignettes are, they’re all staged with such love and craft that they’re definitely enjoyable in their own right. All this, coupled with some fun, quirky performances from Justin Theroux as the sex-addicted Dr. Mantleray, and Sonoya Mizuno as the chain-smoking, hard-talking, Velma Dinkley-looking Dr. Fujita, do make Maniac an interesting, if not always enjoyable watch. I say “not always enjoyable” because, like some of its characters, the show doesn’t seem confident enough in its own story to stay focused on one thing for very long.
As I mentioned earlier, the whole drug trial setup is just a framing device for the filmmakers to make a bunch of parodies of other movies and TV shows. Several episodes take place within the patients’ fantasies, and have their own, entirely insular stories, so that, when the show does cut back to the real world of the drug trial, it’s jarring. And sometimes, within those various vignettes, the rules get broken. In the fantasy episode, for instance, Emma Stone’s character, who, for the first half, was doing a British accent, and behaving like an Elf, suddenly starts talking like an American and commenting on how “none of this is real.” I understand that, in the context of the episode, it’s meant to represent her character realizing that something is wrong with the trial, but it honestly comes off more like a cheap meta-textual joke that the writer’s threw in to prove how clever they were. Which raises the question, if you’re not confident in your recreation enough to stick with it, why do it at all? It honestly feels like, these days, writers are scared to commit to a single tone or idea, for fear that they’ll be labeled as “cheesy.” So, instead, they constantly disrupt their own stories to let us audience members know, “hey, it’s cool, we get that this is silly. No need to make fun of us. Look, we’re doing it already.” And speaking of disrupting the narrative, there are several instances where the filmmakers will throw in things that are meant to be jokes, but which just come off as awkward and painful. In one scene, for instance, Justin Theroux is using a VR device to have sex with a weird, CGI fish-lady, and it feels so out of place and made me so uncomfortable that I almost stopped watching. That’s this show in a nutshell; put off the main story for as long as possible with weird genre parodies and awkward humor. And, sadly, I can kind of understand why the filmmakers did that. Neither Stone nor Hill’s primary characters, Annie and Owen, are that appealing. Stone is just a mean, selfish junkie, and Hill is just a sad, pathetic mess, and the latter’s performance as Owen consists almost entirely of vacant stares and monotone whispers. Yes, I’m aware that he has schizophrenia, but the filmmakers never attempt to give him a personality beyond that. It’s as if they’re hoping that, by saying he’s disabled, we’ll instantly sympathize with him, but they never once tell us his interests, or hobbies, or anything that makes him worth following as a character. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Hollywood often uses disabled characters as cheap, pity props, and very rarely bothers to show them as anything other than their condition. Maniac does as well, and you can tell that they don’t know how to give Owen any real humanity by how quickly they replace him with his simulation counterparts, who aren’t disabled, and who instantly have more discernible personalities than he does. So when you take all this into account, the unlikable lead characters, the disjointed tone, and the fact that the writers spend far more time on parodies and side quests than the main story, you’re left with a visually interesting, occasionally engaging mess of a miniseries. Does it have strong elements? Sure. And I’m hoping my friend Momoko gets a career boost off of this. But, on its own terms, I can’t really recommend the show.