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Maniac (Review)

Maniac is Inception meets Cloud Atlas, filtered through a prism of eighties retrofuturism.

That is to say that Maniac will not be for everybody. Indeed, there will be very many people for whom Maniac will simply not work, seeming too weird, too strange and too esoteric. Indeed, it often seems like Maniac is being weird for the sake of being weird, often populating even fairly standard character- or dialogue- driven scenes with small uncanny elements like a foul-mouthed purple robotic koala or a mostly-unseen alien ambassador with a “beautiful blue exoskeleton.” These elements often exist for their own sake. Even when they serve as symbolism, they are often deliberately obtuse.

No Stone unturned.

However, the surreal and contradictory imagery that populates Maniac is a large part of what makes the series so interesting. The bizarre dream-like imagery is very much at the core of Maniac, a bizarre fantasia where everything might possibly be a stand-in for something else or might simply have been plucked half-formed from the imagination with no deeper meaning. Maybe the beautiful alluring alien represents the hawk that a young boy took into his room; maybe the alien represents the predator brother that a young man wants to protect. Maybe sometimes a beautiful blue alien is just a beautiful blue alien.

Maniac is sure to be a polarising experience. Marmite for the television era. Indeed, based on early reviews, it already is. However, it is also a brilliant piece of work; inventive, demented, committed, affecting. This kooky cocktail won’t click with every viewer, but it’ll resonate deeply with those drawn in.

Taking the matter in hand.

Maniac is a very modern piece of television, in form as much as in content. It represents a continued shift towards an auteurist mode of television production, as the realities of contemporary media consumption chip away at many of the rigid formal constraints long associated with the genre. There is a sense that what modern viewers accept as “television” would have been unrecognisable as such even two decades ago, extended narratives freed of the conventions of the broadcast schedule or the pre-determined runtime.

Maniac is largely the product of two imaginations. Most notably, all ten episodes of the series are directed by Cary Fukunaga. Fukunaga is one of the most interesting (and versatile) directors working at the moment. (It’s revealing that the fact that being the first American to direct a James Bond film is one of the least interesting things about the fact that he is directing a James Bond film.) Fukunaga is a wonderful and inventive director, genuinely playful and ambitious, with a striking eye for composition and a willingness to commit to his material.

Watching Maniac, it’s hard not to get a sense that at least some part of what drew Fukunaga to the series was the unique opportunity that the series presented for the director to play with genre. In the space of its ten episodes, Maniac is a eighties-style science-fiction social commentary, an off-kilter working class crime comedy, a graphic and grimy modern noir story, an epic fantasy, a throwback con artist adventure, and a bizarre sixties geo-political thriller with added aliens. There are probably a few more genres thrown in for good measure, and Maniac often feels like an excuse for Fukunaga and his cast to play through them all.

There is a constant sense of radical reinvention and reworking within Maniac, which can often result in a dizzying tonal whiplash as the narrative transitions from one setting to another. This is a series that takes an obscene amount of pleasure in asking Jonah Hill to affect a weird Dutch/Icelandic/something accent, while drawing attention to how distracting it is, offset with an extended sequence of the character enjoying an office dance party that could be lifted from Doctor Strangelove. There’s an extent to which Maniac feels like an audition reel, a showcase for Fukunaga’s versatility, and that of his cast.

A familiar dance.

However, even before getting to the series’ core concept, Maniac seems like the perfect fit for Fukunaga. It represents the director’s second collaboration with Netflix. There is a credible argument to be made that Beasts of No Nation is still the best of the Netflix Original films, with possible exception of Mudbound and the international distribution of Annihilation. As a result, Maniac feels like something of a homecoming for Fukunaga, offering the director an opportunity to go back and indulge to an even greater extent the creative freedom that Netflix affords its collaborators.

Similarly, Fukunaga also established himself as a director to watch with his work on the first season of True Detective, another television series on which he directed every episode. The first season of True Detective remains a highlight of the modern television era, a heightened and gonzo investigative thriller wrapped in the trappings of prestige television. Indeed, Maniac even tips its hat back towards Fukunaga’s work on that impressive first season of True Detective. The penultimate episode of Maniac features an extended action-driven long-take which evokes a similar (albeit more elaborate) sequence in True Detective.

Escaping into fantasy.

Much like True Detective before it, Maniac is largely the work of a single writer. The series was credited by Patrick Somerville, who wrote or co-wrote each of the season’s ten episodes. Again, there’s something resembling form here. Somerville has considerable television experience, including work on The Leftovers. There is a not inconsiderable amount of The Leftovers to be found in Maniac, even beyond the casting of Justin Theroux and the fact that the entire season looks like it might be unfolding in the Freudian dreamscape from International Assassin or The Most Powerful Man In The World (And His Identical Twin Brother).

This sort of auteur vision would have seemed completely alien in the context of American television even twenty years ago. It is a sign of how rapidly things have changed since the launch of The Sopranos or The Wire that Maniac only seems weird rather than completely off the wall. There is nothing on television that looks or feels like Maniac, even though it contains a number of recognisable elements and even though it’s not quite as singular a vision as the revival of Twin Peaks. Still, there’s something refreshing and exhilarating about Maniac.

Brought to heal.

Of course, the idea of a single series driven by a single writer and directed entirely by a single director is not radical in terms of international television. Krzysztof Kieślowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz collaborated on the ten-part Dekalog miniseries for Polish television at the end of the eighties. British television frequently features writer- and director-led miniseries that are broadcast as television events. It is only in the United States, with its focus on twenty-odd episode seasons and long-running series that this approach never really caught on.

Even allowing for the roots of this sort of television outside the United States, Maniac feels like the kind of television series that could only exist at this moment. Maniac is an eccentric piece of work, even in terms of narrative, visual and thematic weirdness. It is hard to imagine a simple pitch or a TV guide logline for the series, just as it’s interesting to wonder how earlier generations of commissioning editors might have responded to the absurdist and surrealist pitch. After all, even Edge of Darkness had to tone down its weirdness for British audiences, the lead actor warning the writer that he wasn’t “turning into a f?!king tree.”

Of course, the Twin Peaks revival has raised the bar for the kind of abstract weirdness that is workable on television. Even then, there’s a formal flexibility to Maniac which illustrates the blurred boundaries of the modern conception of television. Maniac runs for ten episodes, but those episodes are of variable lengths, freed of the formal constraints of television scheduling. This is a feature of television in the streaming age, the ubiquitous “Netflix bloat” that assumes that the longer an episode is the better for the audience. This isn’t always the case, with many Netflix episodes often feeling like they need another editing pass.

However, Maniac takes the opposite approach. None of its episodes are longer than fifty minutes. Two episodes are under thirty minutes; four more (including the finale) are under forty minutes. Maniac embraces the freedom from the demands of having to fill a timeslot in a way that other streaming series haven’t, understanding that the removal of a fixed length is not an excuse to simply include a bunch of material that would otherwise end up on the cutting room floor. There are episodes of Maniac that are short enough to qualify as half-hour comedies, a formal flexibility incredibly rare even in modern television.

Demur lemur.

In this sort of sense, Maniac illustrates the weird state in which modern television finds itself. As with the Twin Peaks revival, it would be disingenuous and sensationalist to argue that Maniac is more of an extended movie than a television series. As with the Twin Peaks revival, Maniac is clearly broken down into episodes. Although the story is heavily serialised and the individual episodes bleed into one another, it is possible to single out individual episodes of the season as part of a whole, often by reference to the fantasies contained therein.

(The first two episodes, for example, overlap in terms of plot but instead explore the narrative from two different perspectives; the first episode tells the story from Owen’s point of view and the second from Annie’s, with each explaining background events in the other. The fourth episode is a season highlight involving a lemur, and the fifth is a strange screwball comedy mishmash. The second half of the season blurs together, perhaps reflecting the narrative unfolding, as stories collide and intersect, but the finale is very much its own episode.)

There’s no SCIENCE to see the mind’s construction in the face…

At the same time, even if it’s disingenuous to describe series like Maniac or the Twin Peaks revival as extended feature films, there is a sense that they are not quite television either. They emphasis the blurred boundaries of the form. In particular, Netflix series like Maniac effectively entrust the audience to act as their own schedulers, with the opening and closing credits serving as little more than chapter breaks rather than clear beginnings or endings. Maniac isn’t an especially radical example of televisual form, but the fact that it isn’t radical suggests just how much has changed in the past few years.

Maniac is very much a show anchored in the present moment in other ways. It is a story about many things, but one of its big recurring fixations is the idea of mental health and wellness, and particularly the idea of reality that is informed by these concerns. This is obviously a very timely issue. There is a recurring sense that consensus reality is falling to pieces and that contemporary culture has lost the common ground necessary to support shared notions of what is real. Maniac is a story about two characters desperately trying to share a common reality, against all odds, and so it feels rooted in this moment.

A sense of dreads.

This is perhaps something of a prickly proposition. Maniac focuses on two central characters, Owen and Annie, who suffer from psychosis both literal and metaphorical. In particular, Owen is a paranoid schizophrenic, with the first episode making considerable efforts to capture the illness (and its affect on Owen) in a manner that avoids familiar cinematic or televisual clichés. It is to the credit of Maniac that “schizophrenic” is not a catch-all world for insanity, with the series paying particular attention to how Owen processes information.

However, there is always a tension in works of art that seek to use insanity and mental health as an extended metaphor for social commentary, particularly when these works of art engage with their themes in a heightened and stylised manner. There is a tendency to exoticise mental illness and to other those individuals who suffer from very real conditions, to patronise or even romanticise those afflicted and to engage in tired clichés about the people who manage with these illnesses on a daily basis. Popular culture has always had a tense push-and-pull relationship with depictions of mental health.

Keep on trucking.

To be fair, this a fundamental issue that is probably as much down to language as it is to some bolder artistic sensibility. Words like “crazy” and “insane” are used in radically different contexts, applied to both individual people and to society at large. “Crazy” is a word that certainly seems applicable to the current political moment, when the President of the United States is a former reality television star who has had affairs with porn stars and who might possibly be implicated in a vast international conspiracy masterminded by the country’s old Cold War enemies.

The word “crazy” used in that context has a different meaning than similar words used to describe individual psychological conditions, but the linguistic link between the two makes it an appealing metaphor. This is nothing new. As above, so below. Storytelling has always embraced the idea of individual mental illness as a prism through which it might comment on contemporary society. It’s no surprise that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a huge influence on Maniac, right down to the phrase “McMurphies” to apply to catatonic patience; another story of contemporary insanity focusing on individual psychosis.

Something to chew over.

Maniac repeatedly returns to this metaphor of “as above, so below.” Size and scale are big recurring visual motifs running through the season’s ten episodes. Repeatedly, characters find themselves interacting with shrunken objects or environments, or trapped in miniatures, as a reflection of the weird dynamic that exists between people and the world around them. Small things take on outsize importance; a tiny lost chapter of Don Quixote, an overturned model truck, an errant lemur. Similarly, characters often find the world around them has gotten much smaller, with Owen stumbling through streets like a lethargic Godzilla.

In fact, Maniac repeatedly suggests that whatever demons Owen and Annie might be wrestling with, society itself is struggling with its own psychosis. Even before the characters throw themselves into fantastic dream worlds, there is something uncanny about the mundane reality they inhabit. Maniac is populated with details that don’t seem quite right. “I know it sounds muddled, but that is the way that reality works,” Owen’s father tells him in the opening episode. The world is populated with small incongruous details, such as “the Statue of Excess Liberty” off the shore of New York City.

Getting off the bench.

The production design on Maniac is breathtaking with some fantastic work from Alex DiGerlando. In many ways, Maniac seems to unfold in some frozen version of the eighties. The series presents a version of America where technology never progressed too far beyond gigantic personal computers. None of the characters in Maniac seem to have a phone. The internet doesn’t seem to exist. Japanese culture exerts a massive influence over the version of America seen in the film, including the company where most of the action takes place, evoking the anxieties of films like Rising Sun or Die Hard or Black Rain.

Maniac offers a world in which characters still solve Rubiks cubes, professionals de-stress by working on bonzai trees, and virtual reality porn is stored on floppy discs. This is a world that doesn’t even have high-definition media, as evidenced by the abundance of 4:3 aspect ratio imagery delivered in grainy VHS quality. Trying to take a photo with both herself and her sister, Annie muses, “They should invent a stick or something for this.” In the world of Maniac, the “most sophisticated supercomputer ever invented” is nothing but a series of blinking lights.

Never too far a-Field.

One of the smaller smarter touches of Somerville and Fukunaga’s alternate world is the hypercapitalist retrofuturism underscoring it, presenting a version of the United States that feels like RoboCop directed by Michel Gondry. One of the cleverer aspects of all this is the recurring reconfiguring of contemporary technology through an eighties lens; many of the smaller and uncannier touches of this world feel like familiar aspects of the modern world as they might be imagined by somebody from an earlier decade without the surrounding frame of reference.

Ask somebody in the eighties to imagine how the internet connects random strangers in a virtual space without any material connection and they might conceive of something like “Friend Proxy”, “a service that gives you pretend friends.” Similarly, ask a person from the eighties to depict the manner in which vast corporations provide free services while monetising individual data for advertisers and they might end up with something resembling the intrusive “Ad Buddy” service from the series. The world of Maniac is effectively the modern world reconfigured as eighties retrofuturism. How reflexive.

As with a lot of things about Maniac, these small details serve to enrich the world and to challenge the viewer to make their own reading of it. Why does Maniac look like the modern world reconfigured as eighties retrofuturism? Is it a commentary on the wealth gap as the ultimate expression of eighties materialism? Does it treat the election of reality star as President as the organic extension of the election of film star as President? Is it a reflection on the weird “is the Cold War still happening?” anxieties that link now and then? Or does it simply look cool?

Maniac provides relatively few answers to these questions, often inviting the audience to make as much of the material as they want. It is possible to treat Maniac as a complex system of interlocking and interconnected symbolic puzzle boxes, with everything serving as a reflection of or commentary upon everything else; is a caged lemur a representation of a lost love, an embodiment of unattainable reconciliation, or is just a lemur? Alternatively, it’s possible to just process Maniac as a cavalcade of pretty images and charming little stories, with only the most obvious (and explicit) of throughlines.

Byrne, Daddy, Byrne!

Although this level of abstraction is undoubtedly indulgent, and almost certain to render Maniac highly polarising, there is something very appealing about the series’ commitment to weirdness. After all, this is a series about characters who get lost in one another dreams. It would be disappointing if it wasn’t weird or abstract. In fact, it should be noted that one of the more frequent complaints about Inception was that its dreamscapes were too linear and too conventional. Maniac is decidedly more surrealist in its approach to narrative and the world inhabited by its characters.

However, the willingness to extend this uncanny quality outside of the characters’ shared (and private) hallucinations into the outer world serves as an effective comment on what it feels like to live in the modern world. Maniac suggests that the world is just as muddled and confused as any of the characters wandering through it, and that reality is an inherently elastic concept. Even the frameworks and structures designed to buttress objective reality are compromised and unstable. “We have a serious problem,” Doctor Azumi Fujita observes during the fourth episode. “Our computer might be horribly depressed.”

The health and safety standards are also very eighties.

Inside the simulation, a facsimile of Owen’s father inquires of him, “Have you ever considered that despite all your problems here it’s likely that you are currently trapped inside a malfunctioning and extremely dangerous simulation, which is itself directed by a suicidally depressed consciousness?” He is talking in a very literal manner, discussing the particulars of the series’ plot. However, he’s also tapping into the same broader cultural milieu that the series reflects. After all, it’s no coincidence that recent years have seen a growth the notion that the world is just a defective simulation.

(Maniac also wears the influence of The Matrix on its sleeve. In one dream, right before the representation of his father questions his conception of reality, his family’s lawyer asks Owen if the sleeping pills are helping. When Owen admits that they are not, the lawyer suggests, “Try the red ones next time.” Indeed, it’s possible to read Maniac as part of a broader cultural meditation on the nature of reality reflected in contemporary films and television series like Westworld or Legion. It is perhaps no surprise that modern comedy Game Night should spoof the reality-warping internal logic of the nineties film The Game.)

Getting into her head.

However, even beyond this broader cultural sense of unease, Maniac is essentially a story about smaller human connections. “Hypothesis: all souls are on a quest to connect,” Doctor James K. Mantleray explains in his opening voice-over. “Collorary: our minds are not aware of this quest.” At its core, Maniac is a story about the hope of forging a profound and meaningful human connection in an increasingly chaotic word. Mantleray theorises that life is about nothing more than “collision”, but Maniac suggests other important “c” words; connection, catharsis, confrontation. All at the core of human interaction.

“What is this, therapy?” Annie asks during one of her debriefing sessions. Mantleray is almost offended by the suggestion. “It’s not therapy,” he explains. He insists, “It’s science.” However, Maniac is a series that is very much anchored in and devoted to the idea of therapy, of the idea of the act of wellness being a continual and iterative process. Self-improvement and healing are not instantaneous, they take work. In some ways, it mirrors a recurring theme in popular culture, the idea that the self is a work in progress and they we improve by increments.

Bojack Horseman is perhaps the best example of this approach, but it’s also present in how Westworld approaches the idea of consciousness as something repeated and emulated until it finally clicks into place. Maniac is a story that focuses on the idea of repetition and reiteration. Most obviously, the various dream worlds each allow Annie and Owen to replay out variations on their core traumas and to work through them in a variety of ways. In fact, characters and elements and even lines frequently recur to reinforce the idea that all of this has happened before and will happen again.

More than that, Maniac suggests that part of the nature of trauma is to relive that trauma, to repeat it, to replay it. Annie frequently and literally revisits her own formative trauma, the nightmare that left her horribly (physically and emotionally) scarred. Owen’s hallucinations and nightmares repeat themselves. Both Annie and Owen fundamentally understand that each of the narratives through which they move represents a chance to relive a core personal trauma with a different spin – to filter their experiences through a slightly different lens.

Needing space.

The idea is that each iteration of the process allows Annie and Owen to get a little further, to delve a little deeper into the pain that they feel and to come a little closer to breaking through. Towards the end of the series, Annie finds herself standing on a cliff edge with a manifestation of all her guilt and loss, the representation of all the pain that she carries around inside herself. “We always get to this part, but we never get past it,” the apparition explains, suggesting the need to break out of these patterns of bad behaviour, to keep moving forward. Maniac is very much a show about therapy.

Maniac stresses that this sort of healing is not reserved strictly for those with diagnosed psychiatric conditions. If anything, the characters around Owen and Annie are just as messed up. Mandleray and Fujita are navigating the ruins of destructive relationship, a dynamic complicated by Mandleray’s awkward relationship with his mother and the tension that Fujita feels with her own creation – the “offspring” that she created modelled on her boyfriend’s toxic mother. Mandleray and Fujita make Owen and Annie seem positively well-adjusted, and that’s before confronting a depressed computer.

All the best neuro-scientists have mommy issues.

Maniac is about the challenges that stand in the way of these connections, and the hope that it is possible to overcome them. When Annie finally decides to pursue her connection with Owen, she is prompted by a coincidence that serves to point her in the right direction. “This is a sign,” she insists. “It means the universe isn’t total chaos.” Despite attempts to randomise the data and to isolate Owen and Annie from one another, Fujita observes, “Each time I separate them, they just find their way back together.”

Manaic is a story about love and connection, a very simple and straightforward story about the process of trauma and healing, told with an engaging energy and in a compelling style. It is a tale of two characters navigating a fractured reality, in search of a meaningful connection. The world is a messy, complicated and chaotic place, but Maniac never lets go of the hope that it might one day make sense.

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