Netflix’s MANIAC (2018) is a bizarre mindbender that throws ‘normal’ out the window
Netflix’s Maniac follows two strangers who partake in a mysterious pharmaceutical trial that will no doubt change their lives for good.
Maniac is a limited series written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga that I can only describe as being one of the most unique series’ I’ve ever seen especially in terms of narrative direction. I can’t prepare you for what this narrative will throw at you but you’re in for a fulfilling and intricately well crafted psychological trip that whether you love it or not is no doubt impressive from a technical standpoint. Fukunaga is an exceptional writer/directer and this is evident more than ever in Maniac where the story he has crafted is filled to the brim with so much detail that this dystopian New York feels real and vividly realised. Every little detail that takes place in the real world and the ‘dream’ worlds the narrative explores has been thought of and purposely included by Fukunaga leaving no loose ends and connecting literally everything. It’s the subtle connections like a familiar character name, the appearance of a specific object, the radio call in the background, or a seemingly throwaway line of dialogue that make this whole experience feel so 100% complete. Fukunaga has left no stone unturned and I guarantee a second viewing would result in me picking up so many scene-linking visual and audial details that it’ll only add to the experience. The satisfaction that comes from recognising a small but definitely not insignificant reference is thrilling and this happens throughout the entire series with its constant interconnectivity.
I will say that despite the narrative direction and structure being very experimental and throwing you through loops that will have you constantly asking questions it isn’t a flawless execution. There are a number of very lengthy sequences in here, the presence of which I completely understand in relation to what is happening in the story, and I commend Fukunaga for really going all in on these unique dream sequences committing 110% to crafting compelling stories within a story. It’s just that in the moment some of these sequences felt very drawn out and not as engaging as I’d liked them to be. I understood the story within these sequences (for the most part) and how and why they connect to the bigger picture but some of them run insanely long and didn’t grab me as much as the core story. But I do need to commend this series because even in the sequences that I wasn’t wholly invested in I did want to keep watching to see where it all goes.
Where the narrative content is engaging for the most part, nothing bad can be said about the technical elements of this series as they are absolutely phenomenal. The visuals across all the worlds visited are undeniably stunning. Almost every scene is beautifully shot and composed in a way that made me never want to look away from the screen. When Maniac is exploring the outside world, the aesthetic of this past/present/future dystopian New York grabbed me at every point and the clean but still subtly dirty atmosphere bled into the other environments so well. There is one sequence in the latter half of the season that is incredibly shot and executed flawlessly. It’s one of the many unique genre-bending sequences in this show and isolated from everything else going on it’s insane. Despite the varying shifts in the environments visited and genres explored the tone remained the same throughout. This due to the consistent visual style and one other element I didn’t recognise until afterwards… the score. Not until I began going over the entire season in my head in hindsight did I recognise that the score is so subtle yet so impactful. It never is the biggest part of any scene but it has just as much of an impact as anything else.
I will say though that there is one scene around a third of the way through the season that is poorly interjected into the episode. It’s abrupt and weird and it could have been better integrated assuming it even needed to be in there in the first place.
This series is led by two phenomenal performances from Jonah Hill and Emma Stone who play the two lead test subjects Owen and Annie respectively. Both actors exhibit a tonne of range throughout the season as they tap into a number of different personalities that allow them to accentuate certain qualities. When it comes to subtle humour, they hit it, when it calls for them to deliver some deeply emotional moments, they kill it. Their performances in all of their solo scenes interacting with secondary characters are fantastic but it’s the moments in which they’re interacting with each other that are their best. Their characters have a bunch of engaging relationships throughout the season and watching the two of them go back and forth is compelling due to how well their performances are. Other than Jonah and Emma there aren’t a whole lot of other great supporting performances. I did like Billy Magnussen in the limited scenes he’s in as he bought some enthusiasm to his scenes that other characters couldn’t. Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno play two doctors who have a number of scenes but both fail to make a real impact through their performances. The sequences they’re involved in are a little quirky but they still felt a little too out of place most of the time and I wasn’t loving them.
In the end Maniac is a show that I enjoyed for the most part but the experimental nature doesn’t always work in its favour for me. I believe Cary Joji Fukunaga has done an exceptional job in the writing and directing of this limited series where his attention to detail, world building, and choice of narrative direction makes this a unique and largely fulfilling experience. That coupled with the incredible performances from both Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are more than enough reasons to check out this relatively short series. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Maniac to many people as it’s not the easiest to digest and it’s a very intelligent and pretty high-concept series that can’t really be watched in passing. So I’d say if intelligent sci-fi is something you typically find engaging then give it a go but due to its uniqueness I can’t make any promises that you’d enjoy it.