A captivating neon-lit exploration of our anxieties
Maniac, loosely based on the 2012 Norwegian series of the same name, follows two emotionally vulnerable characters – Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) and Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) – as they undertake a pharmaceutical trial which claims to solve any and all mental health issues through a series of drug-induced fantasies, allowing patients to relive and process their past traumas. These increasingly surreal and meaningful dreams quickly get out of hand or, in Annie’s words, are: “some multi-reality brain magic shit”.
Director Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective) creates an enthralling atmosphere of neon colours and well-framed shots, occasionally giving off Wes Anderson vibes – especially in the pink-lit dream-like trial lab. He sets the series in what appears to be some kind of alternate reality of the present day, outfitted with 80s retro aesthetics, with huge neon signs and clunky looking technology. This works well in combination with the dystopian inventions of the show which sometimes depressingly mimics our reality, including the artificially intelligent GRTA system running the drug trial, and services such as “Friend Proxy” which, for a fee, will provide a strange simulation of an interaction with a loved one.
In addition to the sometimes disturbing influence of technology in this world, we see some extremely questionable and troubling treatment of the trial participants – when one claims the reliving of their trauma is unethical she is quickly rebutted with “you waived ethics in your consent form”. Certain doctors steadily insist on the forward movement of the trial in spite of any possible damage to the patients, and the bureaucratic violence and psychological mistreatment are often troubling.
Fukunaga skilfully interlaces patterns and motifs throughout both the real and the dream worlds and often leaves it up to us to decide whether these “signs” are real or imagined by the mentally ill characters, plunging the viewer into a state of confusion similar to the patients. Jonah Hill portrays the schizophrenic Owen who repeatedly struggles with delusions and hallucinations and is alienated from his family. The similarly isolated Annie played by Emma Stone is perpetually angry and likewise coping with broken familial relationships. Stone thrives in this genre-hopping series, portraying an array of convincing and occasionally caricature-like characters with an admirable variety of accents, often at odds with Annie’s exhausted and bitter reality. Hill conveys a less dramatic transformation between roles, generally remaining similarly monotonous and anxiety-filled as his central character – although this may simply be due to the writing of Owen as less liberated within the fantasies. He does appear as an equally intriguing array of characters – including a terribly accented Icelandic official, an eagle, and the son of a criminal mastermind who looks remarkably like Post Malone.
The writing of these characters creates a highly relatable depiction of mental illness in its exploration of feelings rooted in their experience – that of a lack of human connection, familial dysfunction, a confusion of reality and fantasy, and a questioning of the meaning of life. What makes this series so powerful is its basis in the modern anxieties experienced by all of us.
Despite the dark subject matter, a comedic and light-hearted tone is ever present with a generous sprinkling of awkwardness, comically gruesome scenes and the most unexpectedly bizarre. Hill and Stone both give humorously deadpan responses to some of the most intensely grim moments in the series, and Justin Theroux shines in his caricaturish portrayal of Dr Mantleray. With his awful toupee and hilariously melodramatic mother issues, Theroux’s exaggerated and unusual behaviour brings a light-hearted and entertaining quality to the tense action of the series.
Visually exceptional, heartfelt, and at times hilariously bizarre, this show is a captivating, one of a kind ride I was genuinely sorry to finish.