Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), the mentally ill hero of the new Netflix drama Maniac, is obsessed with what’s real and what isn’t. It’s hard to blame him, since his illness often manifests itself as a hallucinatory doppelganger of his horrible brother Jed (Billy Magnussen), who sends Owen on nonexistent spy missions. And the bulk of the limited series, adapted from a Norwegian show of the same name, involves Owen and the depressed Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) undergoing a drug trial where they experience one computer-generated fantasy after another in an attempt to diagnose, confront and cure their problems. Is the drug trial real? Is Annie? Or is one of these fantasies his actual life and everything else a particularly sad illusion?
What’s real, Owen tells Jed, is “the only thing that matters.”
We’re at the stage of the serialized TV boom where Owen’s question is often the same one discerning viewers need to ask when they decide what to watch. What’s real — as in, really great and substantive and worth the time it takes to watch — and what’s just an illusion created by high-end talent and flashy visual choices? (Wave hello, Westworld.) Is Maniac — which reunites Superbad pals Hill and Stone and teams them with True Detective Season One director Cary Joji Fukunaga and writer Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) — here to deliver the goods, or is it all sizzle, no steak?
Like Owen’s attempts to figure out what’s genuinely happening to him and what’s just in his pharmaceutically-enhanced imagination, the answer is complicated. The series (it debuts September 21st; I’ve seen all 10 episodes) is loaded with stunning imagery and setpieces, and features marvelous performances from Stone, Justin Theroux and Sally Field, among others. Substance-wise, it never quite adds up to as much as it aspires to, but it’s just so weird, gorgeous, surprising and, yes, fun that the hollowness ultimately didn’t bother me that much. (Think: Legion Season One as opposed to Legion Season Two.) The emperor’s new clothes may be invisible, but goddamn do they look good on him.
The story is a slow burn, told with intricate detail from the start. The first two episodes are largely devoted to getting to know Owen (black-sheep son of a rich family led by Gabriel Byrne) and Annie (angry, chain-smoking and forever making empty promises to visit her sister Ellie in Salt Lake City). The more interesting part of those early chapters, though, is the world that Somerville and Fukunaga have built, which is simultaneously retro and futuristic. All the technology is out of the early Eighties — dot matrix printers, CRT computer monitors with green-on-black displays — but often re-imagined to mesh with our current lives. Instead of Facebook, there’s Friend Proxy, where you hire someone to play the role of a pal you can’t see in real life for one reason or another. Pop-up ads have been replaced by Ad Buddies, a service where you’re followed around by a person with a briefcase full of ads they’ll read aloud to you for as long is takes to cover your subway fare, rent, etc. The Statue of Liberty has been replaced by the Statue of Extra Liberty, a fierce golden warrior with wings, which one can imagine certain politicians commissioning any day now.
There are so many peculiar details lurking in the margins that it doesn’t hugely matter that it takes until the fourth episode for the story to fully kick in. As Dr. James Mantleray, inventor of the process Owen, Annie and their fellow lab rats are trying out, Theroux hilariously parodies his own image as a broodingly handsome leading man. Mantleray wears a Shatner-quality toupee and is an emotional wreck long before his celebrity shrink mother Greta (Sally Field, continuing her recent career renaissance with venomous comic timing) gets involved in the project. Theroux’s part of the show nearly drowns in technobabble, but he always feels in on the joke when Mantleray has to utter a phrase like, “It’s a globular cluster of arborized realities.” Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians), meanwhile, plays things intriguingly close to the vest as Dr. Fujita, the engineer who built the artificial intelligence that runs the project. It’s never clear how much she really knows and how much is just an incredible poker face behind her omnipresent cigarette.
But it’s when Owen and Annie are fully immersed in the treatment that Maniac begins to fly. Due to a glitch in Dr. Fujita’s computer, they get linked together in a series of bizarre fantasies involving, among other things, a stolen lemur, a heist of the legendary lost chapter of Don Quixote (a book that becomes an important thematic touchstone for the series), a fantasy quest and an alien invasion. It’s strange and ridiculous, and whether or not you believe that any of this could actually help cure depression or schizophrenia, the energy of it all is infectious.
It helps that Fukunaga is directing every episode. Time has revealed him to be the most important creative force of True Detective, based on how creaky that show’s second season felt without him, and how vibrant every frame of Maniac looks. There’s a long take (reminiscent of the famous one he pulled off in the fourth episode of True Detective) where bullets are flying and you may wonder how the camera moved everywhere it did, but Fukunaga’s work runs much deeper than that. He grabs hold of each fantasy pastiche with such verve that it’s easy to imagine him doing full-length(*), 100 percent sincere versions of each. (The Quixote heist, set at a swank mansion in the late Forties, is a particular delight.) But even moments capturing the mundane world — like flashbacks to Annie on a road trip with Ellie, played by Julia Garner(**) — feel like Fukunaga and Somerville sat down with the crew to figure out a brand new way to present images we’ve all seen a million times.
(*) Then again, one of the show’s smarter choices is to keep most installments hovering around 40 minutes, with the fantasies rarely taking up even an entire episode. Each idea is explored and then let go before we can get bored with any one of them.
(**) Garner’s having one heck of a year, with significant roles in four different series, including this, The Americans, Ozark and Waco. She’s not in Maniac a ton, but the majority of the season’s most potent emotional moments spin out of her performance.
Stone also proves unsurprisingly game for each new turn, and each new genre she has to embody. Some of her choices in the fantasies are so broad as to border on cartoonish, but the story largely demands it. And it serves in effective contrast to how tired and angry Annie is whenever we return to the real world. She has the more satisfying emotional arc of the two leads, and makes the most of it.
Hill’s performance is more of a mixed bag. As is often the case when he takes on dramatic roles, his Owen is defined less by a personality than by the absence of one: muted, closed-off, only occasionally present in a scene. That approach captures the alienation that Owen feels, but the character frequently ceases to feel like a real person in the way that Annie does. That makes it harder to ground Maniac‘s bigger flights of fancy. And Hill only sometimes seems comfortable in the fantasy settings, especially compared to his co-star.
Because Owen never feels fully developed, and because the experiment is so clearly nonsensical (even if it’s more or less meant to be), Maniac ultimately feels emptier than it might imagine itself. But just as the procedure is meant to shock its subjects out of the drudgery of their everyday lives, the audacity and eccentricity of the thing comes as a welcome jolt to a Peak TV universe where too many shows are capable but familiar, coherent but dull.
Is it real? Hell if I know. Is it entertaining? Absolutely.