It’s hard to know where to start with Maniac. Largely because Maniac itself doesn’t know where to start. The first episode hurls us into a retro-tech world that seems to be a vision of now from the perspective of the ’80s, throwing out numerous Philip K. Dickian, dystopian touches without giving us a chance to properly absorb them. It juggles a plot about a mentally ill rich guy named Owen (Jonah Hill) who joins a dodgy sounding medical trial that blends artificial intelligence with hallucinogenic drugs, and seemingly meets the girl of his dreams, Annie (Emma Stone). It is overwhelming, befuddling and frustrating. You would be forgiven for finding it a complete turn off and, well, turning Maniac off.
But here’s a tip: don’t. Stick with it. You will be rewarded. Loosely adapted by Patrick Somerville (formerly a writer on the American remake of The Bridge) from a Norwegian show about a man in a mental institution who conjures up adventures in various different genres, Maniac gradually blooms into a compelling and darkly funny pseudo-science-fiction romance, which folds together elements of Brazil, Total Recall and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though the film it most closely resembles is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
Hill and Stone make a solid double act, but it’s the latter who really owns this series.
Somerville’s ambitious remix settles into a rhythm of presenting Hill and Stone in odd situations as their characters hallucinogenically live out their anxieties via unwitting avatars, or “reflections”. Every episode is exquisitely directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose gliding, long takes are applied to a variety of different milieux. One instalment presents a Fargo-esque ’80s caper in which they’re a married couple trying to liberate a stolen lemur from a fur-coat store. Another casts Stone as a half-elf ranger in a Lord Of The Rings-esque fantasy. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’ world, the just-as-flawed doctors running their trial (Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno) have to contend with malfunctions brought about by the fact that their big, flashing-light computer is depressed.
As proven years ago by Superbad, Hill and Stone make a solid double act, but it is the latter who really owns this ten-part mini-series. Whether playing the abrasive Annie, or any of her “reflections”, she pulls you past all the superficial bizarrities of Somerfield’s psychedelic multiverse and grips you with a powerful emotionality as Annie confronts her own guilt about the death of her sister (Ozark’s Julia Garner). She’s also very funny, and Hill clearly needs her around; whenever their characters are separated, you pine for her return.
Like Legion, Maniac revels in its wild weirdness, but once it settles down, it’s less hyperactive than Noah Hawley’s X-universe freak-out, and much warmer. It might start stutteringly, but you will fall for it, and it ends so beautifully you may even find some brine in your eye.