Review: “Maniac” A Mind-Expanding Experience

Courtesy of Netflix

A chess playing animatronic koala, a depressed artificial intelligence played by Sally Field, and mass-produced sidewalk-wandering dog poop roombas all have a place in the campy yet touching Netflix dramedy series “Maniac”. In this sci-fi inspired world set somewhere between 1980 and 2030, a new superdrug is being developed to solve the deepest, darkest cognitive problems of any user, with no side effects. However, the drug is still in its early stage of development, and two unlikely test subjects, Owen Milgram and Annie Landsberg (played by Jonah Hill and Emma Stone), find that taking this drug brings them closer than they ever would have come in the real world, and drives them both into a trauma-surfacing, mind-bending adventure.

The use of vibrant lighting and whimsically 80s set design betrays Netflix’s tendency to glorify vintage aesthetics. Green text IBM era computers fill a purple laboratory, and CRT screens abound with pixely, fuzzy rainbows. Tack this on the list with the Heathers remake and Stranger Things. Along with bizarre accents, quick and dry delivery, and bolts of dark humor appearing throughout the series, much of Maniac’s production reminded me of a Wes Anderson product.

Hill’s deadpan performance as Owen Milgram outlined his characters role as an emotionally distressed black sheep, but at the same time was incredibly monotone and close to lifeless. In most acting situations, this would be considered a harsh critique, but Hill incorporated this listlessness seamlessly. For most of the show, I was torn between empathizing with Owen, and wishing he’d start to feel better enough to crack a smile.

Stone’s portrayal of misfit Annie Landsberg was a perfect antithesis to Owen’s drab, unassuming life. Her bubbly energy that boils over in most of her on screen roles is ever present in this show, but she also carries the emotional weight and trauma-revealing mannerisms of someone struggling with mental illness. She’s able to shift between a fast-paced, campy-dialogue fight scene immediately to a soul bearing confrontation with her innermost demons.

For the shows director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, this series is on the lighter side of his collection of works (“It”, “True Detective”, “Beasts of No Nation”). Even while the show is visually bright and energetic, the plot uncovers the difficulties faced by Owen and Annie as they struggle with mental illness and deep internal trauma. In an interview with Vulture, Fukunaga explains his approach to the subject and his goal for how mental illness is portrayed in the show. “We did not want to make mental illness the butt of a joke by any means,” he said. “Beyond even this project, there are things I want to do to try and destigmatize mental illness and address it in the workplace and figure out how to create more sensitivity around it.”

I can’t imagine this show needing a second season, the multi-narrative format for the 25-45 minute episodes are densely packed. While some of the relationships between supporting characters seemed a bit forced to me, the attention to detail and consistency of storytelling were strong. I’d recommend this mini-series to fans of the budding “dramedy” T.V. genre, 80s aesthetic addicts, or those who wish to see mental illness portrayed with dignity in mainstream television.