Jam-packed with 90s nostalgia, boxy computers, eccentric scientists and a twisted vintage style, “Maniac” thrusts us into a world that is not quite our own. Set in an alternate United States, “Maniac” plays with a future where clunky technology and green-text PCs create functioning AI and seek to unravel the human brain.
The 10 episode mini-series delves into the convoluted plot of a drug trial gone awry and the two individuals wrapped up in the middle of it. Owen (Jonah Hill) is unsatisfied and depressed with his life. He battles his disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia and feels he is controlled by his wealthy family. Annie (Emma Stone) is adrift and addicted to a strange new drug after the death of her younger sister. They both enter a trial run by Nerberdine Pharmaceuticals because it promises something nothing else can: the ability to “fix them.” Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) has developed a series of pills and a complicated AI system that he claims can cure the human mind. As they and 10 others enter the sequence, they are swept into the world of the subconscious.
The pills, labeled A, B and C, take the subjects through various dream landscapes in their own minds, each a bizarre and warped rendition of their own realities. As we follow Owen and Annie in this psychological and psychedelic journey, we see them become different characters for different times and places. Annie and Owen struggle to understand and survive these different dream narratives, ranging in decades and styles from 40s heist, “Lord of the Rings” style epic fantasy, 80s suburbia and alien conspiracy. We soon understand that curing the human mind is not as easy as A, B, C, especially as a dysfunctional inhuman mind (the AI conducting the entire experiment) intends to “cure” something that is innately human, our turbulent emotions that serve as a way to understand our world.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation,” “Sin Nombre,” “It” ) is attempting something tremendously complicated: If the original setting of “Maniac” wasn’t enough, the series deep-dives into a fully constructed image of the unconscious, where reality fades and a deeply tormented human brain is mapped. These different worlds provide insight into the unfiltered human mind and highlight the bizarre fantasies that transpire there.
Where “Maniac” succeeds is in its dedicated world-building. In each 40-minute long episode Fukunaga is able to create fleshed out realities where his versatile cast can explore new characters and worlds to their heart’s content. Two standout episodes are “Furs by Sebastian” and “Exactly Like You.” In the opening sequence of “Furs by Sebastian,” Owen and Annie, now a married couple, argue in a messy kitchen. It is the perfect opener to set the scene. Owen’s mullet and Annie’s large curled hair and accent have the ability to instantly transport us into the world of white picket fences and 80s suburbia. Similarly, in “Exactly Like You,” the erie 1940s mansion, filled with mysterious characters, beautiful beaded gowns, marble columns and spiraling staircases quickly establishes a setting allusive to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, who over the course of the 10-episode series are placed into various dream personas, are able to show their incredible range as actors. Stone, in particular, effortlessly transfers from one character to the next, each with their own gestures and voices. Each of her characters commands immediate attention from her audience. She effortlessly weaves in their multifaceted identities, showing great vulnerability and depth of emotion.
Stripped of its fantastical settings and world-hopping, the show’s plot is quite lackluster. In the end, the plot revolves around the dysfunctional AI conducting the experiment. We are left with this conclusion: A broken mind cannot develop the process of curing another broken mind. In fact, “Maniac” seeks to conclude that the mind can never truly be “cured,” providing a compelling look at mental health and the people who grapple with it. However, with multiple loose ends and half developed side-plots, this message gets lost in a maze of dreamscapes, romantic subplots and, least interesting of all, Doctor Mantalrey’s “mommy issues.”
With a disregard towards the main story-line, “Maniac” spends a large amount of time in the development of Doctor Mantalrey, his overbearing therapist mom and his sidekick/lackluster romantic subplot. This tangent in the narrative receives way too much screen time and elicits no empathy from the viewer. The preference for the bizarre and the ridiculous even in the “real-life” narrative makes the characters lack believability. In an already ambitious story, jumping from dreamscapes, to an AI’s “depression,” to Mantalrey’s estranged relationship with his mother creates serious pacing problems and weakens the series as a whole.
In the same vein, the jumping subplots hinder the development of the main characters. Individually, Annie and Owen become more complex, but a lack of focus on their relationship makes the conclusion of their narratives feel quite flat. Owen and Annie’s relationship was never examined to the extent it should have been, which made their “real world” reunion feel forced and hollow. We are supposed to be blown away by a message of acceptance and community, as two lonely individuals find a place where they can place their trust, but without sufficient development this conclusion isn’t realistic.
“Maniac” is not perfect; the incredibly ambitious concept is hard to juggle in the span of 10 episodes. Even some incredible performances, creative world-building and stellar individual episodes do not “cure” the fact that this series is too convoluted for its own good and has serious pacing issues. However, it is an interesting and exciting romp through different decades, emotion and characters. Trying to embrace and map the weirdness of the human brain is probably an impossible feat. However, Fukunaga comes close to delivering in a series that feels like you’ve stepped into something impossible to understand and impossible to turn away from, something similar to the inner workings of our subconscious mind. It’s bizarre and fast-paced and hilarious in the right ways, and for these reasons, as well as Hill’s and Stone’s versatile performances, it’s worth the watch.
Contact Emilia Diaz-Magaloni at emilia2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.