Emma Stone and Jonah Hill star in the new Netflix seriesNetflix // Paramount Television

At one point in Maniac, Jonah Hill’s character Owen manages to accept and articulate what’s wrong with him. ‘I don’t know what’s real and what’s not’, he confesses, and that’s probably the best description of my state of mind watching the show. That’s not to say that Maniac is particularly confusing, or that I was getting lost in the twists and turns. Rather, it is just extremely hard to work out whether Maniac itself is the real thing, if it’s a TV show which has something genuine to say, a show which is significant in its analysis of its (and our) world, or whether it more closely resembles the elaborate fantasies its characters experience – intense, intricate and immersive, but in the end inconsequential.

"The reason Maniac is so hard to pin down is that there is nothing, on first glance, that is wrong with it."

Though the question of what is real appears to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds in Maniac, the true question hanging just beneath the surface is ‘can I escape from my world?’ Every character is trying to escape from something, be it domineering family members, a tragic memory or just the difficulties of life. These attempts to escape eventually lead our protagonists (Hill’s Owen and Emma Stone’s Annie) to take part in an experimental drug trial, in which they experience fantasies, which take the form of short but vivid vignettes, generally lasting less than an episode each. For example, in one such episode, they find themselves in the 1940s on their way to a mansion for an elaborate heist, while in another they visit the United Nations during an alien invasion. A computer glitch means that Owen and Annie keep finding each other in these dreams, leading to some fun genre work from the two actors. The viewer is not just kept on the subjects’ side of the experimental glass either: a large portion of the action concerns the scientists who oversee the trial (though naturally, it transpires that they are not as much in control as they would like).

The show provides ample opportunity for genre workNetflix // Paramount Television

The reason Maniac is so hard to pin down is that there is nothing, on first glance, that is wrong with it. In fact, so much is so perfect about the show that it seems almost a shame to accuse it of any wrongdoing at all. The performances are uniformly fantastic (aside from an oddly miscast Jonah Hill in an uncharacteristically straight role), and the production design truly brings to life all the fantastical worlds, including the real one inhabited by our characters at the beginning, which is a retro-futuristic play on our own world where on the one hand computers still function largely through ‘60s-style buttons and LEDs, but on the other hand sanitation robots roam the streets and one can pay for public transport using someone who follows you around reading personalised advertisements until your ticket is paid for. Each of the genre vignettes works very well too, with clearly cine-literate creator Cary Fukunaga (recently hired as the director for the next Bond film) drawing inspiration from everything from Lord of the Rings to the work of the Coen Brothers. One watches them and can easily imagine flicking through channels to find full-length versions of any one of them.

"The series so effortlessly and stylishly slides in and out of each world it inhabits that the viewer just goes with the flow, with nothing truly making an impression."

But this, perhaps, is the problem. The series so effortlessly and stylishly slides in and out of each world it inhabits that the viewer just goes with the flow, with nothing truly making an impression. Since the aim of Netflix (which produced the show) is simply to keep the viewer watching, at all costs, there is little here to make the viewer pause and think about the themes or what the show is trying to say. Where a substantial TV show is like walking through sand, each step along the way not laboured but certainly leaving an impression, Maniac is like ice skating: there is no friction to slow you down and the journey is quickly completed, leaving not so much as a scratch. This show exists simply as something to watch and then to have watched, not as fuel for thought or discussion. This is not to say that there is no substance at all here – Fukunaga is too intelligent a filmmaker not to be dealing with ideas. There are themes running through the show about the way we deal with mental health, about isolation in society, the pressures of family and the effects of loss, but themes are all they are – the show has no theses to present.


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Escapism is not necessarily a bad thing for a TV show to be – most shows function as something to watch to forget the concerns of our world and its complexities for a while and slip easily into the simpler stories we find on-screen. But Maniac aims much higher, towards a level of truly transcendent television, and is so perfectly pitched in so many ways that it is disappointing to find that it wastes its potential. Where Maniac’s characters all simply seek escape from their worlds and emerge changed by their experiences, its viewers have loftier ambitions for the show, but come away largely unaffected.

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