Netflix recently released the “limited series” Maniac. The series, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two subjects in an experimental drug trial that will supposedly solve every one of their mental health issues. The series also features Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians), Justin Theroux (The Leftovers), Sally Fields (My Name is Doris), Billy Magnussen (Game Night), and James Monroe Iglehart (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). While the series may only be 10 episodes, each one varying in length from roughly 26 to 45 minutes, the show packs a punch and gives us performances that will linger for a very long time.
It’s not surprising that Maniac was directed by Fukunaga. The entire series feels very similar to his work on True Detective. Fukunaga clearly knows how to balance the two leads, giving them both equal attention and letting them play into one another in the best way possible. The show also does a fantastic job of letting Stone and Hill show of the vastness of their talents. There is an immense amount of depth to their characters, and their performances help bring out those depths and make the characters enjoyable.
It’s no surprise that Stone gives an amazing performance. She’s without a doubt one of the best actresses working today and rarely gives a performance that isn’t breathtakingly fantastic. That being said, Hill has always been a difficult actor to judge. He’s made a career out of being the funny fat friend and poking fun at himself in most of his roles. He started to step out from that with the 21 Jump Street films and The Wolf of Wall Street, but it’s still what we expect of him. Even in those films, he still falls into his usual typecast. You could argue that part of the benefit to Hill’s performance here is his recent weight loss, but I don’t think that’s it at all. I think this is him finally getting the chance to show us what type of actor he can really be. There are plenty of deep, dark, compelling moments in this series that would not work if he wasn’t up to the task. Hill loses himself completely in the role, and it works one hundred percent.
The film is full of amazing work by the supporting cast as well. Theroux is fantastic as always, Fields gives a performance that is without a doubt award worthy, and Mizuno does a great job of making what could be a very two-dimensional role into something more. Honestly, this is a show that wouldn’t work if the cast wasn’t bringing their A-game throughout, and they undeniably do. There isn’t a single actor in the series that doesn’t fully commit to every aspect of this show, and there are times where they take some major turns.
As for the series as a whole, it’s a fantastic look at the reality of living with a mental health disorder. The show doesn’t use these issues lightly, and it presents them in a way that is real and unforgiving. It’d be easy to play into the tropes and caricatures often seen in characters with mental health disorders, but Maniac does everything it can to show that while there is serious darkness and hardship here. It shows that these are still people who love, have empathy, and don’t want to be in pain.
The series also does an excellent job with creating an interesting sci-fi story. There are many moments throughout the series that feel much like something along the lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a good classic sci-fi story that you have to fully devote yourself to. In a way it’s something that would only work with Netflix and the ability to binge. While the show is a “limited series,” it plays so much more like a very long classic sci-fi film, one where technology is something to be nervous about and is at times a cautionary tale on the dangers of humanity’s hubris in the face of technological and medical advances.
The only glaring flaw in the series is that it sort of dumps you right into the world and the characters’ lives without an initial explanation. By doing that, the series does feel off-putting at first, but the performances by Hill, Stone, and the rest of the cast keep you going. As the show continues, it does pay off significantly. The choice to start the series in such a disorienting way also helps us connect to the characters more easily. It’s easy to empathize with the characters who are lost in this world, trying to find their way, when you’re a little disoriented yourself, and the show does a good job of working into that immediately. Starting with something simple like Stone’s character, Annie, breaking open a newspaper rack to get change to buy cigarettes at a convenience store. Then as she leaves the store and enters the world, we enter it with her to see the vastness and overwhelming complexity of it frame by frame, cut by cut. It’s overwhelming, but smooth.
Netflix’s original content can sometimes be hard to figure out. They’re not all home runs, but when they get it right, they really get it right. Maniac is a perfect example of them getting it right. It’s a fantastic series with amazing direction, acting, writing, production design, cinematography – everything. Just like most good sci-fi stories, there’s a good chance you’re going to watch it again as soon as the credits finish rolling.
Maniac is currently streaming on Netflix.