Greetings from the Ether,
To open up the New Year, we wanted to start off with a review of a Netflix original series that hasn’t received the attention and love it deserves. While not necessarily horror or weird, MANIAC borders the lines of several genres and through its scope and originality, bolsters the significant distinction of being one of the most original and thought-provoking miniseries in recent memory, while tightening its themes around the misconceptions and stigmata that surround mental illness.
The story follows Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone), two disturbed young adults who have both experienced their own traumas. Owen is the black sheep of his family, an outcast among their rich and aristocratic personas, whilst Annie is an antisocial individual that hopes to amend broken relationships with her family after a tragic event leaves her psyche shattered into pieces. We follow both characters as destiny pits them together in an experimental drug trial. The drug in question, consists of three different pills that are designed to force an individual to relive their most traumatic experience, and to conclusively allow their overcoming of these traumatic events. The creators of the drug hope to eliminate mental illness and depression, by extracting the root causes from their psyches and forcing a “confrontation” in the final phase.
While the miniseries, directed by True Detective Season 1’s Cary Fukunaga, holds many qualities of a comedic sort, viewers may be unwise to treat it as such. There are varying elements of the show that are heartbreaking, and others that are spiritually uplifting. Too often in popular media, mental illness is treated as a proponent toward violence or insanity. Both of our lead characters are mentally ill, Owen a paranoid schizophrenic, and Annie a sufferer of borderline personality disorder. We see these characters experience hallucinogenic dream-like scenarios together after their “wires are crossed,” literally and figuratively. Through these shared journeys during their use of the trial drugs, an unbreakable bond is formed from the wreckage of their minds, as they learn to piece themselves back together through friendship. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone both give the best performances of their respective careers, showing an immense range of emotions and character development in such a short run-time.
The scenarios during their “trips” are bizarre and mind-bending, but each experience holds some psychological bond to their real-life selves. Their insecurities are portrayed through action, and their traumas are put on display for them to conquer. MANIAC triumphs in its ability to convey a plethora of different emotions. From anger, sorrow, and resentment, to love, happiness, and freedom. The beauty of this series truly lies in its expert ability to display the wide range of emotions and experiences that make us human. Its willingness to convey the importance of mental health awareness, and the humanity behind the veils of the afflicted.
Fukunaga further asserts his expertise in direction, as widening and panning camera angles home our focus, as dreamy distortions are brought to frighteningly realistic realization. The score by Dan Romer combines Asian folk with New Wave Synth, cementing this dystopian world into believability. We are offered a future that is akin to Blade Runner and Ready Player One, where neon advertisements decorate bridges and people make careers out of being “ad buddies,” who follow you around spouting ads as they pay for your cab-fare and coffee. The materialized world beckons the viewer to feel the same lucidity and slight insanity that our protagonists experience. The dream scenarios so off the wall, ranging from Owen’s Post Malone personality, to Annie’s high fantasy realm with her sister. The terrors of A.I. gaining too vast of an intelligence are prevalent, furthering the clear inspiration derived from the works of Philip K. Dick.
MANIAC thrives the most in its emotional core and its unwillingness to submit to cultural stereotypes. We, the viewers, learn the importance of self-forgiveness and, most importantly, friendship. Love can cure anything, and sometimes it only takes destiny to pit us into remarkable circumstances to realize it. We have no doubt that fans of science fiction, or even personal drama, will find MANIAC to be a soothing and original work, especially amongst a world trite with remakes and sequels/prequels. You could even watch the miniseries for its score and cinematography alone. At a short run-time of 6 hours and 43 minutes, the entire miniseries could be viewed in a day, and we couldn’t recommend it any higher. The heart-wrenching ending of the series by itself will leave you sobbing tears of joy to no end. That is, if you’re not still in a dream scenario yourself.