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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

'Maniac' Is the Most Netflix-y Netflix Show Yet. In a Bad Way

Maniac might just drive you mad. Netflix's new 10-part sci-fi drama—starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, and directed by True Detective shepherd Cary Joji Fukunaga—seems like the sort of cancel-all-plans event upon which the streaming service prides itself. Instead, it demonstrates what happens when Netflix's prestige- and pedigree-obsessed creative strategy overrides all functionality. This isn't a TV show. It's a pricey, claptrappy, long-form Iowa Writers' Workshop application. And it's all filtered through the lens of somebody who seems to have watched every Kubrick movie a half-dozen times, without ever laughing once. Maybe you'll be able to get through the whole thing. By episode six, I was on the ice-blue line of insanity.

Maniac casts Hill as Owen Milgrim, a very, very sad New Yorker who's recovering from a mental breakdown, and is experiencing all sorts of visions: A glass of water vibrates and shimmies on a table; popcorn kernels on the ground all of a sudden pop to life. Owen's also being pulled against his will into a scandal involving his wealthy family, a situation that makes him all the more depressed. How depressed? Like, superbad depressed. At one point, he confesses: "You know that movie It's a Wonderful Life? If that happened to me, there'd be no difference in the world."


It's hard to know what Owen says next, because it's half-mumbled. In fact, much of Maniac, at least early on, consists of Hill acting near-comatose with moroseness. In this series, depression isn't a complicated, sometimes-below-the-surface ailment with various forms and manifestations—it's a constant state of Charlie Brown sad-sackness.

Anyway, everyone in Maniac must suffer—including Annie Landbergh, a traumatized addict played by Emma Stone. Annie and Owen, who has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, eventually meet up at a clinical trial for a new drug that promises to bring happiness. But when the computer overseeing the experiments starts taking on human qualities—it doesn’t wear tennis shoes, but it does begin feeling depressed—Owen and Annie suddenly experience shared, subconscious-occupying fantasias.

It's at this point that Maniac becomes completely untethered, both from any sort of recognizable human behavior, and from whatever narrative ideas it may have been setting up early on (none which were particularly novel, but still). In one fantasy, Owen and Annie imagine themselves as a working-class '80s1 couple trying to rescue a prized lemur. In another, they're at-odds early-20th-century con-artists … hoping to steal an obscure Don Quixote-related artifact … during a séance.

Maniac’s fantasies are thirsty for whimsy: This is a show that thinks the word "lemur" repeated over and over again in a Long Island accent is funny, and that "everything in life is, like, connected" is some kind of miraculous observation. The episode-long excursions also bring to mind the early days of Netflix's original-series efforts, when the streamer would throw tons of dollar bills—but seemingly no notes—at pricey indulgences like Marco Polo and The Get Down. At its worst moments, Maniac feels similarly unsupervised—a story told without budgetary constraints, audience concerns, or adult supervision. It's algorithmic greenlighting at its worst: High-end filmmaker + big-name stars + "smart" ideas = "Go crazy, gang."


All of which is disappointing, because the look and feel of Maniac is outstanding: Here's a show filled with junky, garage-confection technology; Brutalist architecture; and Nordstrom-meets-Nostromo production design. It could take place 28 years ago, or 28 years from now. There are nifty gadgets like a Roomba-like robo-pooper-scooper, and a New York City skyline that's re-branded with corporate logos. At its best, Maniac recalls the plausible future-shock of World on a Wire, the dazzling 1973 virtual-reality thriller filmed in Cold War–era Germany (it's on Filmstruck, by the way, if you want to get your head busted a bit).

So, yes: Maniac looks great. It will inspire a zillion frame-grabs and GIFs. But it doesn't inspire anything else. It's a show that wants you to think it has all sorts of ideas: About the rigors of mental illness; about the false escapism of addiction; about the increasing corporatization of our lives. But after several show-offy hours, Maniac doesn't reveal a single truth or idea that hasn't already been kicked around—with more honesty and heart—in movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Melancholia.

Just as Maniac was hitting its low—in every way possible—with that dopey It’s a Wonderful Life one-liner, I wondered, "Who is this show for?" But the answer's obvious: It's for Netflix. Maniac will no doubt give the streamer a few weeks of Twitter buzz, maybe a few Emmy nominations—and yet another reason to brag about how it's figured out what TV should be. Don't fall for it. Maniac is an empty screen. If doesn't happen to you, there'll be be no difference in the world.

1 Correction appended, 9/24/18, 12:45 PM EDT: A previous version of this story misstated the decade in which the couple in Maniac imagined themselves as a working-class couple. It took place in the '80s, not the '90s.

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