After a somewhat dry-spell in the constant output of Netflix originals, Cary Fukanaga’s miniseries Maniac is a much-needed breath of fresh-air. The series follows Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) as they undertake an experimental psychological drug trial in a retro-futuristic hellscape version of New York City, in an attempt to escape their lives and discover themselves.
The world of Maniac is one in which issues both contemporary and familiar to our current world and issues of a (hopefully) distant and unfamiliar one, collide. The characters deal with increasingly absurd debt-reduction services, breaches of privacy and sexual harassment cases, as well as insane Artificial Intelligence (AIs), relationships with computers and increasingly surreal psychedelic simulations. The series opts not to wallow in the intriguing clunky technologies or the foreboding dystopian elements of the world. Instead, it focuses in on its central characters’ personal struggles, both tangible and imagined; Maniac seeks to escape from the harsh realities of the world, just like them.
Hill and Stone deliver restrained performances initially. However, as they enter the drug trial at the centre of the story that ties them together, the series gradually brings the insanity of its plot, gorgeous visuals and zany characters to life. Whilst they’re joined by some equally ridiculous as they are entertaining performances by Justin Theroux, Sally Field and Sonoyo Mizuno, Stone and Hill remain the emotional core of the show and its narrative.
The series’ plot is one that explores its two major characters’ mental afflictions through progressively more ludicrous simulated scenarios induced by the drug trial. Fukunaga flexes his narrative and visual style as he surfs genres and tones between crime, fantasy, horror and spy thriller, all without losing track of the progression of his two leads’ character arcs or relationship. Maniac’s impressive production values, atmospheric music and tight editing, combined with Fukanaga’s distinct and breathtaking visual sensibilities, delivers a stylistically distinct yet fully cohesive work of art.
In concept, the series could potentially come off as tacky, exploitative or offensive to serious mental illnesses. However, Maniac maintains a fine balance of seriousness and absurdity to glide across a tightrope of potential moral or tonal issues, delivering a heart-warming, inspirational tale of rising above your setbacks. By the time it concludes, Maniac transcends its depiction of a world that appears austere and soulless to convey a final note of hope and comfort in the hearts of others, a timeless message that we seem to often need reminding of.
Despite its inspiration from a 2014 Norwegian miniseries of the same name, Fukanaga; creator of the series and director of all ten episodes, has managed to produce something incredibly original and unique in today’s television landscape with Maniac. With no second season planned, and Fukanaga confirming he won’t return as he sets off to helm the next Bond film, it seems likely that the show will live on as a brief splash of colour in a sea of grey- a spark of heart, creativity, individuality in a culture that can so often seem oppressively bleak.
Image: Ivan 2010 via Wikimedia Commons