Cary Fukunaga's latest Limited Series, produced by Netflix and featuring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as a starring role duo, is a 4-hour-journey through the human mind that will leave you baffled, confused, amazed and floored. Yes, it's brainy. Yes, it gets weird. No, it is not an absolute home run. But it is visually brilliant, poignant, well-made and the first real must watch from Netflix this quarter.
In Maniac, both Hill and Stone play deeply troubled individuals with a lot of baggage and a deep mistrust in the world around them. Hill's character, Owen Milgrim, lives in a small apartment despite coming from an incredibly affluent family. An accident in his past (A blip, which I won't spoil here) has left him incapable to connect with others or function properly - the opening scene finds him struggling to be deposed as a witness for a crime his well adjusted, successful brother has been unjustly (?) accused of. Emma Stone, on the other hand, plays Annie Landsberg, a bitterly angry young woman who drinks and does drugs to try and smother the traumatic loss of her mother and sister.
Both characters land, through different avenues, into a promising drug trial by Neberdine Pharmaceutical - a Japanese conglomerate which exists in Maniac's version of New York.
Along with 7 other guinea pigs, they are given a pill and plunged into a dreamland that's reminiscent of Eastern masterpieces like Paprika or Kurosawa's Dreams. In the course of the next 10 episodes, both characters will grow closer while trying to untangle the many knots from both their past and future.
But saying anything more about Maniac's plot would be an absolutely shameful thing to do: Fukunaga's work is full of allegories and brilliant moments, and it should be experienced without any 'anchor points' such as reviews, clips or the incredibly spoiler-dense trailer Netflix released.
What we can talk about, instead, is Maniac's world and characters. First of all, Maniac's obsession with the human mind mean it should by definition be regarded as a character study. Much like with the brilliant detective duo in Fukunaga's previous masterpiece, True Detective, the show is carried here by couples of characters, attracting and repulsing each other in delightful and unpredictable ways.
There's Owen and Annie, obviously, gravitating towards and around each other. But around them we have a real constellation of multi-faceted characters. From scientist rivals Dr. Morimoto and Dr. James Mantleray, to Azumi Fujita - James' old flame and a brilliant scientist herself - and her artificial intelligence GRTA, to Greta, James' mother, who Azumi used as a base for the computer governing the trial; and from the incredible amount of other brilliant personas to the actual world in which Maniac takes place, living and breathing as a New York that could have been, director Fukunaga and writer Somerville create a believable if wacky choral of human developments.
The other noteworthy thing about Maniac is the world building: both in terms of photography (all 10 episodes are shot in 4K HDR) and art direction (this New York is a mix of Blade Runner and The Warriors), Maniac is full of beautiful details and amazing sets that will make you question which side of the screen is actually real and which is an alternative past that never happened.
The entire soundtrack, powered by Dan Romer's synthetizers and an entire orchestra of arcs, deserves a nod for having some of the most delightfully and darkly charming hooks I've ever heard: there's definitely a few standout pieces here - with my personal favourite being the final track, Annie and Owen.
In the end, however, the real make-it-or-break-it toss for a lucid dream like Maniac is not the art direction or the atmosphere, but whether or not the characters in it are believable and human. On this front, Maniac is an outstanding success: its characters are beautifully written, intricate and complex; and the heavyweight cast (especially Jonah Hill and Sally Field) delivers some incredible performances. Emma Stone in particular manages to carry at least two pivotal moments all on her own, and will probably make even the most heartless viewer feel a little knot in his or her throat.
Because, indeed, Maniac is a drama - and a very sad one at that. If you take out the dream elements, the alternate-reality New York, the brilliant soundtrack and ornate art direction, you're left with all the complexities and flaws of modern psychology. Annie is an alcoholic, a drug addict and a borderline suicidal apathic girl, and Owen is a schizofrenic loner who suffers from anxiety attacks. They are complex, fragile characters; and you will recognize some glimmers of yourself, your friends and your family in each and every one of them.
And that's why Maniac deserves a spot on this month's watch list: its script is sometimes meandering, and it has a few weird moments; but this is all forgiven, because it manages to carry both an ambitious story and a very rare and delicate succesful portrait of the human mind. As a TV Series, Maniac sometimes falls short of expectations. But as a snapshot of who we are as humans, it succeeds as no other piece of art in recent memory: it is beautiful, complex, interesting and emotional, and above all, it's an absolute must watch.
After this watch: Dreams, Paprika, Sucker Punch
Known Faces: Jonah Hill (The Wolf Of Wall Street), Emma Stone (Birdman, La La Land), Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina, Annihilation), Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), Sally Field (Forrest Gump, Lincoln)