“Maniac” might be one of the most perplexing, yet engaging series ever to exist on modern television. The new Netflix original series takes a deep dive into family dynamics, the pharmaceutical industry and our dark dystopian future where robotic koalas win at chess to fund their eucalyptus habit.
The plot centers around Owen and Annie, two New York natives struggling with their own personal issues, who decide to partake in an experimental drug trial. They end up in the same trial for a drug that hopes to cure people of their mental illnesses.
From there, the tests commence with jumping into pharmaceutically induced dreams, ranging from a married couple in a classic 1980s Long Island to a 1940s affluent full moon seance party.
At the same time, complications within the testing facility cause more and more problems that the scientists can not explain. The problems allow Owen and Annie to join dreams and interact together to alleviate the pain they are experiencing. Johan Hill and Emma Stone play Owen and Annie, each dealing with their own trauma, specifically around their family. Owen suffers from schizophrenia and is seen as the black sheep of the family, while Annie is recovering from a traumatic experience with her sister. Hill and Stone both knock it out of the park in their more dramatic roles, but still find plenty of spots to use their comedic talent.
Special standouts among the cast are Justin Theroux and Sally Field, who play the leadscientist on the drug trial and his mother. The dynamic of conflicting mother and son is done so tremendously, it makes one hope for a spinoff of just those two characters in the future. Another highlight is Rome Kanda, who some might know from the ABC reality series “I Survived a Japanese Game Show”. Viewers at first will notice the unique visual style, which can be seen as inspired by “Blade Runner” and the 1980s Kodak camera logo. Set in New York City, it does not feel too out-of-the-box, just small changes to the world that make it stand out against other dystopian series. What helps sell the realism is the color scheme, which goes for bright blues, oranges and greens to match the setting.
The series was created and each episode directed by Cary Fukunaga, which helps keep the visuals fresh yet consistent throughout the series. The other notable talent behind the scenes is Patrick Somerville, who wrote on HBO’s “The Leftovers”. Having the visual style of Fukunaga and character work from “Somerville” makes for a perfect combination.
A major strength of the series is its brevity, with only 10 episodes ranging from 28 minutes to an hour. With more and more shows having half a dozen seasons with double digit episodes it is refreshing to see a series stay concise yet pack a punch. The problem with writing about “Maniac” is that so much of what makes the series great comes from the surprises it hits you with left and right. Whether it is the plot, characters or even the way a shot is framed, “Maniac” keeps surprising from the first to the very last episode.
It seems hyperbolic to say that “Maniac” might be one of the best television series ever created, but it peaks in every facet a series can. It may seem a bit difficult to understand at first, but those willing to give it the time will enjoy the ride. Five out of five stars.