Maniac - Review
Netflix’s Maniac has an identity crisis. At once it wants to be a dystopian future age thriller in the vein of Blade Runner and a serious science fiction drama. The artful direction from director Cary Joji Fukunaga salvages it from total disaster, but Maniac is ultimately a failed experiment.
It’s telling that Maniac doesn’t really get interesting until episode seven. This is commonly referred to as the “Netflix Problem”, or the stretching out of a series to entice more views. It works for shows like Black Mirror that have self contained stories and can be enriched by more episodes, but Maniac, a proposed limited series, suffers. At only 10 episodes, most of which range between 30 and 45 minutes, Maniac is already a lean series. It takes its first few episodes (1-3) to establish character, which somewhat pays off in the end, but fails to keep the story going. The plot doesn’t fully come into frame until episode eight when the manic computer begins to act out. Before this, there is a lot of character development between Jonah Hill’s Owen and Emma Stone’s Annie.
The star power in this series is frankly incredible. Recent Oscar winner Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, and Sally Field all make appearances, Theroux and Stone shining brightest. In an extraordinary turn of events, Emma Stone completely makes the series her own, breaking down the barriers between her many different characters masterfully to reveal Annie’s inner demons. Her dexterity as an actress has never been on better display, and choosing this project after her Oscar winning turn in La La Land was a great move. Maniac is much greater thanks to Stone’s abilities, to take her instant recognizability and throw it away like garbage in a second for a character. Her multiple characters cycle through a stereotypical 80s suburbanite, a mysterious and aloof vixen, a cold blooded southern assassin, and a half-elf. All of them, the half elf excluded, are either hilarious or pitiful, and Stone completely sells them.
However, Jonah Hill is the main character of Maniac. He, much like the quality of episodes, gets better over time as he phases out of his deafeningly boring Owen Milgrim and into the much better simulation characters. He cycles through several characters that never seem to be able to pull him out of his character’s depressive personality, and it isn’t until episode nine that he plays a humorous character, which is baffling, and when he does he absolutely nails it. That character doesn’t make it more than one episode, eventually turning right back into the depressive Owen I was so happy to escape from.
One of Maniac’s biggest issues is that it doesn’t see its characters through. It is a style over substance series, building a beautiful and terrifying future that makes sense, but doesn’t give enough attention to its characters. We spend so much time learning about Owen’s family, his personal life, his ticks, his mental illness and how badly he wishes to escape it, or at least accept it, and the ending suggests he has. But upon emerging from the testing facility he is happily committed to an insane asylum, and it takes Annie realizing he is her only friend to break him out. Suggesting that Annie could be healed by the pill and Owen could not makes no sense in the show’s logic, especially when you consider that Owen goes through an incredibly traumatic instance while under the final pill that should have shaken him out of his depression. It makes the ending feel cheap, like the writers just wanted the shot of Annie and Owen escaping in a truck. After all the strenuous character building it felt like my time had been wasted.
Maniac is a glorious disaster, certainly worth watching for the stylistic elements and the final arc that begins in episode seven, but aside from that there is not much good to say. Performances from Emma Stone and Justin Theroux are incredible, career bests, while Jonah Hill and Sonoya Mizuno drag the series down with bland and tone deaf acting. It is so sure that it wants to be so many things that the only thing it really accomplishes is being inconsistent. Much like the nature of the characters, it comes off splintered.