The new miniseries is incredibly fun to watch, but emptier and emptier the more you think about it.
By the time it reaches the midpoint of its 10 episodes, the series is one of the more confident and assured examples of what I call “Big Moment TV,” where every episode involves some jaw-dropping visual or conceit that’s meant to send you to Twitter to buzz, “Did you see that?!”
And as directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the genius (and newly minted James Bond director) behind everything from the wonderful 2011 Jane Eyre to the visuals of the first season of True Detective, those moments really land. I wanted to go to Twitter to talk about them, except that would have been a violation of my screener agreement with Netflix.
And yet there’s something so calculated about Maniac. There’s rarely the thrill of the unexpected, which is tough to explain in a series that longs, deeply, to provide the thrill of the unexpected. Every time the story would shift, or enter another genre entirely, or let the actors play other characters than the ones they came in as, I would nod and say, “Sure. Makes sense!” Which is not what I think anybody involved was going for.
Some of that stems from performance (Hill is a fine dramatic actor but maybe not the guy you want sublimating all of his live-wire energy to play a depressive), and some of it stems from the storytelling, which is a wackadoodle pastiche of “mind-fuck cinema,” in which the movies ask you to question reality and wonder what’s going on and so on.
But not only have you seen the basic dramatic beats of Maniac over and over again, but Maniac takes great pains to explain to you, at every turn, what’s going on, how the characters feel and think about it, and what those crazy, trippy visuals could mean. It’s a mind-fuck movie so unconfident in its ability to fuck with you that it follows up every big reveal or jaw-dropping mindscape with a moment that seems to ask, “Did you see what I did there?”
This probably already sounds like a bunch of ideas thrown together in haste, which don’t really cohere. It is, and it isn’t, and to explain why, I’m going to have to spoil the show almost in its entirety, so follow me after the massive spoiler warning to talk about why it’s easy to remain interested in Maniac but hard to become truly invested in it.
Maniac is a show engineered to appease the short attention spans that led to Big Moment TV
The rise of Big Moment TV has been driven by two factors. The first is that TV storytelling has grown more complex in terms of serialization, but the second is that lots of people still kind of half pay attention to what they’re watching, because they’re doing chores or playing a game on their phone or whatever. So if you watch an episode of Game of Thrones and there’s a big, bloody death or something, that jars you out of whatever other thing you’re doing and forces you to pay attention.
But, increasingly, these sorts of shows feel driven less by the whims of their characters than by the whims of their creators. Game of Thrones went from a show that made you feel the weight of every death to a show that wantonly killed characters without much regard to emotional resonance or storytelling sense. And that’s, ultimately, part of the fun of that show, but it took it from a must-watch to a fun show that often struggles to reach its potential.
But Big Moment TV has increasingly evolved to a point where it’s less about a big death or a big plot twist and more about anything unusual that will get you talking on Twitter, as I explored in this article about The Magicians and Legion. And those two shows form useful comparison points for Maniac, with its occasionally fascinating, occasionally awkward attempts to fuse Big Moment TV, over-explanatory mind-fuck pastiche, and what amounts to falling asleep in front of Netflix. (It was an early adopter of Big Moment TV, lest we forget House of Cards’ entire storytelling ethos.) All while the algorithm randomly shuffles through things it thinks you might like.
(And really do turn away at this point if you want to remain unspoiled about this series, because knowing the premise of this show could potentially ruin it.)
The story focuses on Annie (Stone) and Owen (Hill), two 20-somethings struggling with barely repressed trauma and other mental conditions in a near-future New York where everything, including friendship, has become a part of the gig economy. You can even sell your likeness for various ads and stock photos, as Annie has done, which means that when Owen bumps into her at a purported pharma trial for a new drug, he both feels he already knows her and fears he’s hallucinating her. (He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, see.)
Anyway, the drug trial turns out to be a complicated procedure designed to put people through a sort of psychological boot camp, where in stage one they relive their greatest trauma (the loss of her sister for Annie; a suicide attempt — that might not have even happened — for Owen), attempt to better understand the roots of their psychological issues in stage two, and then confront those issues and their trauma in stage three, in hopes of healing and moving on.
The trial is overseen by a group of people cosplaying as the characters erasing Jim Carrey’s memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, including Justin Theroux, the dryly funny Sonoya Mizuno, and (I swear I am not kidding about this) Sally Field playing a depressed computer.
The bulk of the series involves what happens when a mechanical malfunction results in the fusing of Owen and Annie’s subconsciouses, which results in them essentially entering an anthology series. Across five of the season’s 10 episodes, they play different characters, in different genres, following what amounts to Fukunaga’s syllabus for a “history of American indie film” class. There are suburban capers, and an extended (kinda awful) journey through a gangster/crime movie tale, and a story where Owen becomes a hawk. (That last one’s a lot of fun!)
This is, I think, a pretty compelling way to explore two characters who seem paper-thin at first. By having Annie and Owen journey through both of their subconsciouses at once, the show could theoretically fill in details about these people’s core beings while still allowing for plenty of action and adventure. Seeing Annie as a Long Island housewife trying to steal a lemur, or as a con artist interrupting a seance, or as a half-elven ranger in a generic fantasy kingdom gives us different sides of the actual Annie’s persona and lets Stone have a lot of fun.
But I could never escape the feeling that the show’s weirdness was less an organic investigation of two people in crisis and more a mechanism designed to keep me watching. The journeys that Annie and Owen take through their brains feel assembled more from other movies and TV shows than from genuine psychological exploration.
On a show limited only by the human imagination (at least in theory), these adventures stay frustratingly earthbound. They’re “imaginative,” in the manner of a college student who’s carefully cultivated her persona out of bits and pieces of other personas she’s seen elsewhere, rather than authentic.
Watching Maniac feels like watching Netflix
It feels a little churlish to complain about this, because watching Maniac is a lot of fun. I sat down intending to watch a couple of episodes one day and ended up watching seven, because I really did want to see what would happen next. The writing staff — led by Patrick Somerville of The Leftovers fame — has given real thought to the story of all 10 episodes as well as the story of each episode, which leads to fun journeys through the various genre pastiches the writers come up with. (I loved the Long Island-set crime caper, which felt straight out of a Coen brothers movie.)
But I could never get past the stage where I was enjoying the show’s considerably gorgeous surfaces to access some deeper level. And then after watching the finale, I read a quote from Fukunaga in a recent GQ profile of him, and something clicked. He said:
Because Netflix is a data company, they know exactly how their viewers watch things. So they can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving. It’s not like, Let’s discuss this and maybe I’m gonna win. The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day. So the question is do we want to make a creative decision at the risk of losing people. …
There was one episode we wrote that was just layer upon layer peeled back, and then reversed again. Which was a lot of fun to write and think of executing, but, like, halfway through the season, we’re just losing a bunch of people on that kind of binging momentum. That’s probably not a good move, you know? So it’s a decision that was made 100 percent based on audience participation.
Now, listen, the notes-giving process in Hollywood is important. I’m not somebody who rails against notes, or thinks they ruin the creative process or tear down impeccable works of art. But something about letting a computer give those notes speaks to why Maniac, ultimately, felt less human than human to me, why it always seemed like it was assembled more than it was a deeply felt passion project for anyone. And, indeed, the series is based on a Norwegian show of the same name, and the various genre pastiches look a lot like other Netflix shows if you squint, and every single actor feels specifically chosen to appeal to a very specific demographic.
This would almost feel like Netflix snarkily commenting on itself if the show didn’t take itself so seriously. The fact that it turns into a genuinely sincere story of how Owen and Annie come together to better each other’s lives in the last few episodes is either the bold swing that saves the enterprise or a case of too little, too late. I’m more in the former camp than the latter, but it’s not hard for me to imagine talking myself out of that stance.
And yet there’s something kind of beautiful about a series that applies the dull plotting of most other TV shows — all life-and-death stakes and, “We’ve gotta get to the [plot device] before they do!” numbness — to two emotionally damaged people trying to heal. There’s a bravado here that I can’t write off, even if I never felt like the show went deep enough to turn either Owen or Annie into anything more than ciphers, despite all of the self-analyzing monologues both deliver in an attempt to sell their complexities.
Whatever complaints I have about the show, then, might be a part of its commentary on a world where our mental horizons are so often occupied by stories we’ve heard elsewhere. If you and I somehow had our subconsciousnesses fused, and then went through a series of adventures in dreamspace together, wouldn’t it be more likely that those adventures would be drawn from the movies and TV shows we had watched than something wildly original?
Maniac isn’t weird enough to really achieve what it wants to, but it does say something — however accidentally — about how reality is already weird enough. Maybe that’s why we’re so content to live inside the dreams of others.
Maniac is streaming on Netflix.
Author: Todd VanDerWerff