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Maniac is a trippy sort love story. There is a man, Owen, played by Jonah Hill. And there is a woman, Anna, played by Emma Stone. The man struggles with schizophrenic episodes. He finds it difficult to know what is real. The woman struggles with moving past her sister’s death. She knows all too well what is real. Her problem is that she doesn’t know how to move on from that reality.
The two meet at the intake of a pharmaceutical trial. She is there to score more of the drug that allows her to relive the death of her sister. He is there in the hopes of learning how to live.
The world in which they live is a wackadoo place, equal parts Douglas Adams and William Gibson. It is the future as we once imagined it. Neon signs, clunky keyboards, blinking cursors. The IBM of all possible worlds. There are, too, scattered throwaway gags—like the adBuddies or the Statue of Extra Liberty—that recall something of the whimsy, and benevolent cynicism, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The trial where Owen and Anna meet is run by Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. The culture here is American Japanese. Or possible Japanese American. The head scientist is Dr. Mantleray, a hassled and mother-wrought man played by Justin Thoreux. His second-in command is Dr. Fujita, a no-nonsense woman with a bowl-cut and giant glasses played by Sonoya Mizuno. The AI that helps runs their experiment is voiced by Sally Field, who also happens to play Dr. Mantleray’s mother. The series, for all its technological trappings, is a deeply Jungian text. Everything is archetype.
During the trial, Owen and Anna and the other subjects receive three drugs. These drugs are labelled ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. They are meant, respectively, to force a subject to relive their deepest trauma, learn the defense mechanisms (lies) they built for themselves in response to that trauma, and enable them to move on from that trauma. Each instance of the trial we disappear for part of an episode into the minds of Owen and Anna. We experience their pain as various forms of film genre. Indie realist, neo-noir, and high fantasy. If you ever longed to see Jonah Hill as a brooding, existential thug, or Emma Stone as a pointy-eared, and delightfully bitter elf, here you go.
This is psychotherapy done with a healthy dose of cinematography.
Loosely based on a Norwegian comedy show of the same name, this version of Maniac is run by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) and Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers). Each has made a name for themselves with series seen as existential and vaguely, if not as in the case of The Leftovers–literally– apocalyptic. Maniac has something of that feel, as well, with each episode’s mind-bending journey through pain and deception, leading us ever onwards towards a sense of revelation. It never quite gets there, but then, as we all know, therapy is a process, not a destination.