TV Review: Maniac 🌈🍿

For a while now, it has been hard to find a TV series that I can call perfect, but that has changed after I watched Maniac.

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Emma Stone (left) stars as Annie Landsberg, and Jonah Hill (right) stars as Owen Milgrim in the limited TV series Maniac. CREDIT: Netflix

This post for Maniac contains spoilers.

From its cassette futurism world inspired by Japanese culture, to its cinematic aesthetics, attention to detail, soul-stirring score, and phenomenal performances—Maniac (2018) is a TV series that is perfect from the get-go.

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Justin Theroux stars as Dr. James Mantleray in Maniac. CREDIT: Netflix

Based on a Norwegian series of the same name, Maniac—directed/created by Cary Joji Fukunaga; written/created by Patrick Somerville—is about two strangers, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), who cross paths and form an unlikely friendship with one another during a Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech (NPB) clinical research trial for the U.L.P. drug called ABC—the drug is believed to create “pure, unaffected joy” in a person within three days.

My first thought when watching Maniac was, “Thank god it’s a limited series!”. I honestly can’t imagine having to wait one year to watch a second season of a show that seems to have a semi-complicated, and thought-provoking story. Maniac isn’t just a series where you can breeze through easily; when things happen, you have to question it, process it, and understand it.

I’ve got to say it’s weird to see Hill star in something that isn’t from the comedy genre. His character Owen is an isolated schizophrenic who has reoccurring hallucinations of Grimsson, whom is a different version of his “master gaslighter” brother Jed (Billy Magnussen); Owen’s hallucinations leads him to believe that there is a pattern in this world that he needs to follow. Hill is great in his role, and really makes his schizophrenia and psychosis believable, until the extent that it also confuses the audiences on what’s real and what’s not real.

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Stone, as always, will be a gem no matter what role she’s playing. The academy award winning actress is terrific as the role of Annie—a role that was specifically written for her. Stone’s Annie carries a burden of loss and trauma; she’s still recovering from losing her younger sister Ellie (Julia Garner) in a car accident 5 years ago; she’s a junkie who is addicted to NPB’s U.L.P. drug A because through the side effects of A, she gets to relive the worst day of her life with her sister again.

The thing that drew me into the series was the fictional world that I wished existed. AdBuddy, Friend Proxy, SuckTube, and PoopBot—also known as “shit eaters”—are some of the fictional services and machines that exists in Maniac.

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In this trippy world, you can pay for things like transportation or food by using an AdBuddy; you can hire a Friend Proxy as someone who pretends to be your friend; you can have virtual reality sex by using a tube sucking machine; you don’t have to clear your dog’s poop because a PoopBot will do it for you. Even though it’s set in a similar New York like the one in our own reality, Maniac’s New York steps it up a notch and offers services and technology that Steve Jobs probably wouldn’t have dreamed of.

During the U.L.P. drug trial, Annie and Owen would go through layers of reflections after consuming the drug ABC. The reflections—referring to dreams—that they have take place in a separate setting from their own reality.

“I had what felt like a hundred dreams all on top of each other.” – Annie

In “Furs by Sebastian” (S01E04), Annie and Owen respectively imagines themselves as the Long Island married couple called Linda and Bruce, who live in a 80s suburban area. Another reflection in “Exactly Like You” (S01E05), shows them playing Arlie and Ollie where they are dressed up for a great gatsby-esque séance party. And another reflection in “Utangatta” (S01E09), shows them playing Ruth—a CIA operative—and Snorri—a temporary adjunct assistant to the Consulate of Iceland. There are also two other reflections where Annie and Owen are separated; Annie imagines herself as an elf called Annia in her “least favourite genre” of fantasy, while Owen imagines himself as a tattooed gangster of the same name.

What I love about these reflections is that through watching it, audiences get to understand Annie and Owen better because what lies underneath their made up reflection characters are still themselves—their own memories and behavioural traits as Annie and Owen are what makes their reflection characters come alive.

It is debatable on what timeline Maniac is actually set in. A reddit user found out that based on documents shown in specific episodes, the series is set in the year 2013. In Vanity Fair’s Still Watching podcast (around 38:00), Fukunaga says that he thinks of Maniac’s world in the “present tense, but sort of in an parallel reality—in the Einstein multiverse sets”. In a Thrillist article, Somerville says:

“To me, it’s not our timeline. It’s our zeitgeist of 2018 and it’s a different history of technology. It’s a different kind of version of our reality.”

I personally think—like what the creators have said—it’s similar to our contemporary reality, but set in an alternate dystopian dimension; where there is an additional iconic monument dubbed the Statue of Extra Liberty; where the Brooklyn Public Library is built together with a bus terminal and is dubbed the Brooklyn Public Library Bus Terminal.

Tim Goodman from The Hollywood Reporter writes:

“There’s no fault in that — the visuals in Maniac were always going to be the first thing anyone talked about, and probably rightly so.”

Yes, it’s true that the visually stunning shots are what captures my attention every episode and keeps me craving for more. Specifically in “Utangatta”, there is one continuous gun shooting scene that many have compared to Fukunaga’s work in True Detective—a TV series which I’ve yet to watch. Fukunaga credits this one-shot as an “efficient” way to film an action sequence, as less time is spent on the technical aspects of shooting the scene. The carefully choreographed actions are carried out by Stone, with Hill tagging along behind her and exclaiming “I killed lots of men!” in his humourously exaggerated Icelandic accent.

In Maniac, there are also tons of film references and tributes that the Fukunaga and Somerville have incorporated into their series. I personally was unable to pick out those references until I read about it—either on reddit—or from Time’s article.

Apart from the fact that this series is a masterpiece that vary in a total of 10 episodes that each stretch from 23 mins to 44 mins long, the basis of the series’ plot is simple to grasp because Maniac is all about forming a connection and friendship with someone; the series was never meant to be a romantic love story. This isn’t a stereotypical “girl meets boy, boy meets girl, they fall in love” type of scenario; what Maniac emphasises on is how two strangers who are both suffering from their own issues—whether it’s mental health or grief—come together to form an unlikely friendship, where they now feel the need to protect and help each other out.

Even though I watched finish the series last Sunday, I’m still pondering about it and wondering when will I ever get to watch another similarly crafted and well-articulated TV show. 😔🤔

Rating: 5/5

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