After the popularity of Black Mirror (dir. Charlie Brooker, 2011-) rocketed Netflix Original popularity, it’s no wonder they spun together this futuristic, dystopian tale. Drawing clear aesthetic influences from the Blade Runners (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982 and Denis Villeneuve, 2017), Maniac rings with that neon-scattered, somewhat grimy setting which signals a clear commentary on modern society. Despite never being 100% sure what is happening, spectators are informed enough to engage in the story which takes constant narrative turns. When you click play next episode, you genuinely have no idea what’s about to hit you next. Something I am personally thrilled by.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill make the perfect pairing in this both humorous and surprisingly emotional black comedy. Though the first thing you may notice about Jonah is his weight-loss (yes, he’s skinny now) what’s more important is his superb acting. In fact, he’s probably the most serious character of the whole show. Playing a lonely office worker plagued by mental illness after a psychotic breakdown, his character of Owen Milgrim is followed by a melancholy desperation (not to mention hallucinations) that makes you forget he’s the star of Superbad (2007) and 21 Jump Street (2012).
Of course, Hill still flexes his comedic talents on some occasions. For example, when playing the Swedish-Austrian-Icelandic-Italian NATO representative in a wig reminiscent of Donald Trump. But Emma Stone holds the primary funny role of Annie Landsberg. With equally deep roots. Brutally honest and superficially confident, Landsberg is just as haunted by her past (that she treats with drugs). Aside from the excellent acting, the characters themselves are well-developed and realistic in their balance between comedy and pathos.
In terms of the actual storyline, we tackle the age-old question of what if robots had emotions? Though it may takes us a little while to get there, it keeps us interested as we trace the ‘subjects’ through their mental fantasies when trailing a new drug. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say prepare for some very random events. Paralleling these almost mini-films is the primary storyline. Though is a little more comprehensive in terms of plot, it’s nonetheless offbeat. Dr. Mantleray is squirmy and awkward, alongside his blunt chain-smoking assistant Dr. Fujita.
The fact these characters are almost just as strange as their dystopian setting makes you almost a little uncomfortable, yet unable to tear away your gaze. Each episode ends on a cliff-hanger, making that 10 seconds until next episode ever so tempting. The complex storylines, toing-and-froing between worlds, interconnected characters and layered time zones intricately weaves plot twists to make you go: ah, so that’s why that happened.
You can tell director Cary Fukunaga has put a lot of heart and soul into this programme. Cinematographer Darren Lew controls all elements of the screen masterfully, with a clear aesthetic in both the real and imaginary world. Something complex, multi-layered storylines often fall at in film terms is their heavy reliance on verbal explanation. After all, how else are you going to communicate all these plot points? But I must say I noticed not a single piece of this. All dialogue had a natural flow. Visuals aided in letting the audience figure out for themselves what was going on. And the only scientific language was used for comedy. We’re not supposed to understand what a globular cluster malfunction is.
In some ways, it’s even mocking programmes that do incorporate all that technical lingo. It’s essentially a parody sci-fi…yet still emotive? The dark themes and exploration of mental illness is taken seriously, moving audiences without saturating them in sentimentality. Maniac knows when to make fun of itself and when to be serious. Beautiful cinematography- detailed as to build a textual world, and well-acted character arcs make this mini-series a roller coaster ride to watch.
I’ve heard some opinions that the first half of the series is a little slow, and though I understand why one might think this, I personally had no such experience. It can be a little gory at times, but I believe this is all to add to its shock-factor and isn’t very frequent. Fukunaga’s inspection of the human condition, that allegorically speak of platonic importance and societies growing obsession of clinical diagnosis, cause you to think deeper into what you’re watching. If you enjoyed the mind-bending experiences of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004) or Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010), you’ll be sure to love this wacky, magnificently plotted (if not a little bit hipster) mini-series.