Plenty of time these days is devoted to discussing the idea that high brow storytelling is moving to the small screen and streaming services where there is more of a demand for complex storytelling and sprawling narratives. Maniac is such a series but in a way its a trilogy of films that never would have been made had it not been translated into television form. These three chapters are all decidedly different but wonderfully linked by the idea that melancholy and joy can lead to connection and understanding. The sheer wackiness of the series is just a big plus.
Maniac tells the story of Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), two extremely different people who find themselves inexplicably linked when they both enter a bizarre drug trial run by Dr James K Mantleray (Justin Theroux). Mantleray’s idea of ridding the world of pain through medication appeals to both Owen and Annie but the unexpected side effects give both of them different ideas of how to handle the sadness that consumes them.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director behind the first season of True Detective, this Netflix release is everything prestige television should be. Not only is it visually stunning as Annie and Owen are thrust into different realities on their quest to betterment but it’s quietly intimate as Fukunaga allows his actors room to breathe and wallow in their depression. In doing so you might anticipate a slow, dreary pace and tone but the worlds constructed here are unique, full of life and joy that just seems to elude our characters because they aren’t looking for it.
Annie and Owen might be lost but they can clearly see that something needs to change yet they keep playing the same archetypes within the fantasy scenarios Dr Mantleray thrusts them into. This repetition pushes these characters forward in their ‘therapy’ but its Owen and Annie’s connection to one another and their bond that really changes them. The idea that dreams can change us is disputed here. Fukanaga and creator Patrick Somerville cling to the idea that the people around us, along with our own sense of self, changes us because who better to notice the rut we find ourselves in than those closest to us.
These vital connections we forge link us not only to each other but in Owen’s case, to reality. The connections he has with his family only reinvigorate his idea that the world he lives in is not the one everyone else does. Not only do they manipulate him, to varying degrees of success but none of them truly get him, they latch onto their idea of him while never really asking how he is or what he really wants. In comparison Annie gets him, she can see the sadness of not belonging in him but she too fails to really attempt to understand him. This turns Owen into the series martyr figure as he forgoes his own happiness, sanity and life for those around him.
However Fukunaga never pities him, instead making him out to be the strongest among the films disparate characters, the beacon of honesty in a story full of people lying to themselves. The characters he plays within Mantleray’s experiment, including a gangsters son informing on his paranoid father, are unsure of themselves but understand how they fit within the world they are in. This last bit is something Owen strives for and Hill plays this wonderfully as he infuses real Owen with a tangible gloominess despite hiding, as Annie puts it ‘an inner sweetness’.
Annie on the other hand is completely unsure of who she is. While she gives off the persona of someone who cares little for other people’s opinions she seeks them out but rarely finds them due to her inability to connect. Mantleray’s experiments make her question her own nature of ignorance. She ignores the issues around her, consumed by the issues of her past. Her fantasies are people fed up with not caring about others, a con artist who can’t fight her nature, a hospice carer fed up with merely watching people die, these are people fighting not only how people perceive them but also how they consider themselves.
You might think from reading this that Owen and Annie don’t really mesh but it’s how they are different that brings them together as they both embrace the others qualities while almost ignoring their flaws. This quintessential concept of friendship gives them the building blocks to growing as people, just in a more fantastical way, one that includes mad scientists and crazy computers.
However this is a story of two parts, one is about Owen and Annie but the other is that of Dr Mantleray, a grown man-child with some serious mummy issues. This story shouldn’t fit in with a story devoted to fighting sadness but Theroux makes James peculiar ticks both hilarious and fascinating as his actions transcend the science he is overseeing making the banal almost farcical. This warped reality that these people belong, brought to life through the strange lighting, neon colours and Fukanaga’s distorted direction, works to accentuate Owen’s disconnect from society but it also brings about a healthy dollop of black comedy, an element this cast is gamely up for.
But this is really a story about lost people finding direction by making peace with their past. Be it Owen rising above his own fears and the disinterest of his family or Annie moving past the traumas of her past, this is adventurous storytelling that attempts to tell a small story in a large way. The fantastical elements give way to real feeling, the kind of catharsis that feels earned, the kind of meaning that can be achieved by putting in the work. Their therapy eventually pushes them forward but they aren’t fixed, they still have a long way to go, just like us.