Isobel Helme reviews Netflix’s new miniseries, Maniac.
Maniac, Netflix’s 10-episode straight-to-series dark comedy, has caused quite a stir amongst critics and the audience alike since its premiere on 21st September. Directed by the mind behind the next James Bond film, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Maniac has garnered an array of mixed reviews, from the scathing to the saccharine. Despite its Black Mirror–esque graphics and complicated storyline, Maniac is primarily a tale about companionship, and the importance of facing your demons.
The plot follows Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), a depressed drug addict unable to come to terms with her sister’s death, and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), a schizophrenic man born into a multi-million dollar empire. Stone and Hill had worked together on the 2007 coming-of-age comedy Superbad: in fact, it was Stone who insisted on Hill’s involvement in Maniac. The two characters’ paths cross during a pharmaceutical drug trial. Owen needs money, having rejected a position in his father’s firm, and Annie has a pre-existing addiction to the drug, allowing her to relive the day of her sister’s death, for which she feels responsible. The pills are intended to rectify any problem of the mind. However, the subjects experience hallucinations that incorporate past traumas, and each pill evokes a different, increasingly absurd, fantasy.
The first few episodes may suggest that Maniac is simply a sci-fi comedy, starring the depressed and the ill, but further viewing reveals that Maniac is more multifaceted. There are scenes that are deeply unsettling for viewers, such as the splatter film-inspired scene in Episode 7 where Owen’s gangster father drills through someone’s head, spraying his entourage. However, Maniac isn’t gratuitously dark. The series delves deeply into the complexities of mental illnesses, bereavement and familial tensions, whilst treating them with sensitivity. They are not romanticised or glorified, but the dark comedic context provides an unusual approach to familiar issues. Fukunaga and Somerville, the scriptwriter, have spoken of their reluctance to mock and ridicule mental illness, rather explaining, “Compassion for mental illness, and representation of mental illness, was one of the first things we talked about”.
Maniac is complex. As The Guardian declares, “You might come for the high-concept sci-fi element but you stay for the monstrous Milgrim family dynamics, the subtlety of Owen’s sorrow and – a little further down the road – the sad, strange unpacking of Annie’s broken and dysfunctional relationships.” It is a melting pot of genres, emotions and morals: darkly funny and, at times, uplifting. The ability to combine mental illness, science fiction, love, comedy and inspirational, even philosophical, moments of clarity, is what renders Maniac quite so remarkable.