In the Watch This Next column, Man of Many takes a look back at a great TV show or film that may have slipped under your radar. Given the near-limitless entertainment options in the Netflix era, it’s easy to overlook amazing content in favour of the latest hit. For every Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Stranger Things, there’s another thing equally worthy of attention and we make the case for why you should watch it and where you can find it.
As a society, we’ve solved many of the problems we face through our innovative technologies and can-do attitude. And yet, with all of our combined and connected intelligence the human mind remains notoriously difficult to pin down. Despite advances in available medical treatments—from the archaic times of shock therapy to the modern psychology of today—a significant portion of the world continue to battle with mental health issues daily.
As a result, big pharma has made billions upon billions by producing and selling antidepressants and the like to help keep our rampant human emotions in check. For many of us, these drugs are a lifesaver, helping us through our darkest and most difficult times.
But in the end, we are just treating the symptom. Fukunaga’s new show explores a big question: what if we could solve mental health, permanently?
The Netflix limited series ‘Maniac’ is as much an experiment on we the audience as what goes down in the lab. The show makes it known quickly that nothing is as it seems, and much like Inception or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, you will constantly question the truth of what you and the characters are seeing.
Directed by the up-and-coming Cary Fukunaga (his notable works include Beasts Of No Nation and True Detective Season 1, aka one of the best series of all time), Maniac is as visually compelling as its plot, full of jet-black humour and immaculate scoring, resulting in something truly special, albeit flawed.
The story of Maniac revolves around Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill). She is disaffected and aimless, while he has struggled throughout his life with a self-disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia.
These markedly different characters are connected not only by the big pharma drug trial that drives the plot but also by their troubled family lives. Landsberg is that of an a-typical broken home—her mother left when she was a young girl, for reasons unknown. And as the show develops her bitter and at times savage personality is drawn back to reveal her vulnerability. While this character arc admittedly verges on a trope it’s one pulled off successfully by Stone. Milgrim, on the other hand, is from a well-to-do background. To an outsider, his family seems happy, if not respectable. There are plenty of cracks in the veneer though if one were inclined to take the time to look.
Boasting three Abercrombie brothers, Owen is the black sheep of the family. His woe stems from being coerced into providing an alibi for one of his sibling’s, who is implied to have sexually assaulted a young girl. Naturally, this is causing him some significant grief: his demeanour is flat and his humour dry at best. As an audience member, you find yourself wondering if he was always like this.
The two are total strangers who are drawn to the late stages of a mysterious and frankly, dodgy pharmaceutical trial. The radical treatment, boasting pills that the inventor claims can repair anything wrong with the mind, draws Annie, Owen and 10 other subjects into a three-day drug trial that they’re told will permanently solve all of their problems, with no complications or side effects.
The treatment in question comes in three parts: A, B, C. Each pill, has a unique effect on the brain. Pill A takes you to your most traumatic experience. For Annie, this is the death of her sister, for which Annie blames herself. When we first see Annie out in the real world via flashback, we discover she is addicted to the A pill, reliving the memory of their shared car crash like some sort of self-inflicted nightmare.
And then we are launched into a series of mini-movies unto themselves, each with wildly differing universes, plots and characters. In one episode Milgrim is a thief, attempting to steal an ancient document from a 1920’s seance. In another, Annie is a high-fantasy elf ranger begrudgingly taking her charge (her sister) across a fantasy countryside. My favourite was set in the 80’s with Annie & Owen married, poor and redneck, trying to rescue a pet lemur.
These dreamed up worlds are vivid, playful and meaningful. Each story is a manifestation of Annie and Owens’ respective subconsciousness, brought to life through the drugs and with a little help from the feminine AI, who is the show’s antagonist. While these individual stories that delve into the characters’ subconscious minds and past traumas can be incredibly gripping, it also makes for a messy experience. It also means that you don’t necessarily get drawn into the overall plot.
Despite a lack of consistency in the tone of the overall story, Maniac does boast a rich tapestry of hilarious, yet troubled characters, like the brilliant and fun-to-say, Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux). He’s a sexual deviant with a penchant for virtual reality sex with fantastical anime characters. Theroux’s portrayal of the gross yet oddly charming and endearing doctor who built a supercomputer just get back at his mother could possibly be the show’s standout performance.
His on-off paramore is the quirky Dr Azumi Fujitax (played by up-and-coming Sonoya Mizuno), who loves a ciggie more than life itself and wears the hell out of a lab coat. She’s dedicated to the project entirely and alas, she negates her duty of care. This causes some big problems for Annie and Owen towards the end and is the catalyst for the downfall of the entire trial.
Overall, Maniac is a solid effort. At the hands of a lesser mind than Fukunaga, it could have been a disaster. With so many stories to tell, across a fragmented and disjointed series of universes, there was a good chance of the show being a beautifully filmed dud.
That said, you may struggle to care or relate to the characters on the show. Whilst Maniac deals with the real emotions and problems that people face today, the heavy stylisation makes it difficult to connect with the characters and the world we’re presented with.
Jam-packed with plenty of emotional moments, stunning shots and an art-direction to die for, Maniac is quite the trip, and definitely, one worth taking.