It’s your regular boy-meets-girl story – if the boy in question is a schizophrenic, the girl suffers from borderline personality disorder and the two meet in a drug trial by a dubious pharmaceutical company, designed by a mad scientist with mummy issues, and overseen by an AI mourning for her human lover. Yes, it’s that old chestnut.
Back when Maniac came out, I was definitely interested: its creator, Patrick Sommerville, was a writer on The Leftovers, probably my favourite TV series of the last decade, and he developed the series together with Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director responsible for the outstanding first season of True Detective. The show was also no slouch in the cast department, starring the likes of Emma Stone, Gabriel Byrne and Sally Field. Still, as is so often the case these days, I put Maniac on my list for later… and then a dozen other series got in the way.
Then again, this may not have been altogether bad, because now that I’ve watched the series, I would say that Maniac is a great fit for these strange, unsettling times. There’s an instability to its world, characters and story that matches the instability of the world according to COVID-19, even if Pfizer, Moderna & Co don’t promise phantasmagoric drug trips to go along with their vaccines. Out of the ten episodes, most feature parodies of wildly different genres, from mob drama via sub-Tolkienesque fantasy to spy thrillers, with our heroes Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill) trying to navigate what’s real and what isn’t as they embark on various half-baked quests such as tracking down stolen lemurs or stealing a long lost chapter of Don Quixote.
Maniac offers the kind of storytelling that can easily be massively frustrating to an audience – because arguably its storytelling takes a backseat to the ideas of its creative team. On the surface, the series is about two people, both suffering from mental and emotional issues, finding one another. It’s a variation on E.M. Forster’s dictum “Only connect!”, as Owen and Annie find stability in an inherently unstable world due to each other. Stone, Hill and Fukunaga do a good job of making the series’ emotional core resonate – but it’s not where Maniac finds its biggest appeal. In fact, while the characters and their developing relationship provide something of a red thread running through the series, there’s almost something a tad trite about this, and Maniac is stronger when it keeps this aspect firmly at the edge of its field of vision. Stripped of the way it is told, the story is too thin for a limited series – though it could absolutely work as a small indie movie.
However, the question is: why would you watch this and focus on the story over the storytelling? The delights that Maniac has to offer are in its style(s), the way it plays with reality and genre and aesthetic, in its humour and its abundance of fun, striking ideas, even when these ideas don’t necessarily all add up. There is something of the grab bag to Maniac, and while I could absolutely understand someone coming away from the series finding it arbitrary, I found a strange, intriguing coherence exactly in the way it keeps reinventing itself. In all the elements it plays with, it develops a voice and an identity that is defined exactly by this playfulness. There are various elements to recognise here: in its real-world-gone-mad setting, there are elements of Charlie Kaufman (neurotic characters whose mental issues are emblematic of their fears and insecurities), Philip K Dick (what is real? am I real?), Terry Gilliam (there’s more than a touch of Brazil here) blended with Blade Runner and Alien, as much of Maniac‘s near-future is firmly retro in its aesthetic.
As the series progresses, it puts Annie and Owen into various virtual scenarios that are partly generated by an artificial intelligence, partly extrapolated from their lives and anxieties – and each of these scenarios is a non-sequitur, short-form exploration of genre. We’ve seen such parodies before, but rarely with the kind of commitment to over-the-top strangeness that we get here, while still maintaining some core of emotional truth in the characters. The series creators and its actors are clearly having a lot of fun, as Annie and Owen in turn become an ’80s Long Island couple, a pair of 1940s con artists/thieves, a drunk half-elf ranger and the son of a mob boss who’s informing on his family. Even to describe it, the series sounds insufferably random and twee, but it never comes across as smugly self-satisfied: its inventiveness and formal play, if the audience is in the right mood and mindset for it, feels endlessly generous. And if this generosity is your thing, the aforementioned overarching plot fulfils its function, giving Maniac an emotional arc that works better the less the series leans on it.
All of this may sound like a straightforward recommendation, but it isn’t really: some critics, and undoubtedly many viewers, bounced off of the series. I can imagine this one being streaming Marmite, and if the wavelength on which it works best doesn’t appeal to you, chances are you’ll find Maniac boring or trite, or otherwise incoherent and too zany for its own good. Arguably, it isn’t equally strong in all its various respects, and its blend of comedy, drama and metafiction may fall uncomfortably between all these stools for some. But if you can find some appeal in watching Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in a surreal genre smoothie that has a unique look and a tirelessly improvisational energy of “Yes, and…”, do check it out. As I’ve said: there are worse matches for the sustained strangeness of a global pandemic.