Every other television show can take the rest of the year off, because none are going to top the inventiveness, brilliance and sheer joy of Netflix’s ‘Maniac.’
After a slow, slightly discombobulating start, this audacious comedy-drama-thriller-sci fi (have I missed any?) builds over 10 episodes to a hugely rewarding conclusion, aided by career-topping performances by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, and a supporting cast in which even the smallest of roles adds to the richness of this televisual delight.
I haven’t been so blown away by a series since “The Leftovers,” and it is perhaps no coincidence that two of that show’s writers – Nick Cuse and Patrick Somerville – are heavily involved here. The latter is the creator of “Maniac,” adapting it from a Norwegian comedy-drama series of the same name. I’m normally sniffy about remakes, but what Somerville has done here is take a Walter Mitty-esque tale about a man in a mental asylum and expand it into a gripping and jaw-droppingly ingenious show.
When I tell you that an episode featuring efforts to recover a stolen lemur from a family of lowlifes – two of whom aspire to be in a successful boy band – isn’t even the craziest one here, you should get an indication of how delightfully madcap this all is. Yet what could have been cloyingly kooky works because it’s bound by two empathetic characters whom you are happy to follow anywhere (even Middle-earth).
One of the biggest gripes about Netflix dramas in general is that they often suffer from flappy storytelling, especially in the middle section. But there’s not an inch of fat here. The episodes whizz by so easily that I felt as if I was watching the world’s most engaging eight-hour movie.
On one level, the plot is incredibly simple: It’s a will-they-won’t-they love story in which two damaged souls explore their pasts in the hope of finding a “cure” for their mental anguish. But it is also wrapped in an incredibly dense storyline centering on a pharmaceutical trial in which participants are transported into what someone dubs “Mindlantis” – a place where fragments of their own past traumas are presented to them. As Stone’s character puts it, it’s like experiencing “100 dreams all on top of each other.”
Our two heroes are Owen Milgrim (Hill), the troubled son of a powerful businessman (the ever-charismatic Gabriel Byrne), who has agreed to provide his brother – try, if you can, to think of an even slimier version of Eric Trump – with an alibi in a big court case. But Owen has more demons than a sorority party on Halloween, a problem he shares with Annie Landsberg (Stone), a young woman he keeps crossing paths with. She’s addicted to one of the three drugs administered at the pharma trial, which has been created by damaged-goods scientist James Mantleray (Justin Theroux, another “Leftovers” mainstay), in a bid to eliminate the need for therapy altogether.
His own demons are driving him in this seemingly, well, mad quest – specifically his “celebrity therapist” mom who has become a global sensation with books like “I’m OK, You’re a Bitch.” I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing who plays this character – suffice it to say that when she appears about halfway through, I actually let out an audible gasp. And she does not disappoint.
The initial point of contact for our lab rats is chain-smoking Dr. Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), who is jointly in charge of the program and tends to something called GRTA – which may well be the world’s smartest but most depressed computer.
The three trial drugs (A, B and C) take the subjects into dreamscapes, allowing the show to create a whole slew of genres – from dapper 1940s dramas and ‘80s thrillers to Tolkien-esque fantasies and Coen brothers-esque gangster pics.
This is the perfect excuse for the show’s leads to play a range of characters – whether that’s permed and mulleted white trash (in a killer episode called “Furs by Sebastian”) or a magician and con artist searching for the mythical lost chapter of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.”
Stone and Hill are reunited on screen for the first time since 2007’s “Superbad,” and their performances are testament to how much they have developed as actors in the intervening decade.
Stone is that rare actor who can pretty much do anything – comedy, drama, even musical – and make it look effortless. In many ways, she’s an old-fashioned movie star: a captivating screen presence able to elevate whatever she happens to star in (OK, even she couldn’t save Cameron Crowe’s execrable “Aloha” in 2015). It speaks volumes for the qualities of “Maniac” that she was willing to follow her Oscar-winning turn in “La La Land” – which could also have been the name of this project – with this small-screen role. She brilliantly captures the vulnerability of her “real” character, but is equally adept at playing a femme fatale, Long Island nurse or drunken elf (yes, you read that right).
In the less showy role, Hill portrays Owen with the lugubriousness we’ve seen from him elsewhere (specifically “The Wolf of Wall Street”). But there’s something new here, too: His face looks more lived-in, struggling to conceal the pain while he fears he may finally be losing his mind, unable to gauge what’s real and what’s fantasy. (By the way, am I the last person to discover that Hill’s sister is Beanie Feldstein, who is so brilliant as Saoirse Ronan’s best friend in “Lady Bird”?) As wonderful as Stone is here, it’s the journey of Hill’s character that ultimately gives the show its deeply satisfactory and well-earned ending.
“Maniac” is a playful series in which the initial, admittedly labyrinthine setup is all beautifully paid off later on. For example, just trust me that at some point you are going to find the line “There’s not much of a difference, authority-wise” truly hilarious. And the show even takes a very old joke involving a miniature-sized book and makes it seem laugh-out-loud funny.
It’s completely beguiling stuff, and much of the credit for a show that manages to be both heartfelt and humorous must go to Cary Joji Fukunaga. He directs all 10 episodes with real panache, pulling off a very precarious high-wire act.
His previous work – including the first season of “True Detective” and Netflix’s child soldiers movie “Beasts of No Nation” – demonstrated his ability to create tense, dramatic scenes. But here he gets to do so much more. Whether it’s the comic elements, the sci-fi scenes or the dramatic developments, “Maniac” moves seamlessly from one deranged moment to the next. It augurs well for his next screen challenge: Breathing new life into that cinematic dinosaur, 007, after Danny Boyle quit “Bond 25” citing artistic differences.
There is only one thing that would make “Maniac” even better: That it’s a one-shot deal and Netflix doesn’t commission a second season. The ending works beautifully and there’s nothing to be gained – but much to be lost – from seeing the further adventures of these characters. In fact, when people get to the end of the show, I’m pretty confident they’ll want to watch it all over again. I know I do.
“Maniac” is perfect as is, and you’d be crazy not to watch it.
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