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‘Maniac’ is a mind-bending delight grounded in emotion

| Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lina Domenella | The Observer

“I think our computer might be horribly depressed,” Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) admits halfway through Cary Joji Fukunaga’s beguiling miniseries. “And might be behaving unpredictably.” It might be blunt, but this describes the series’ main obsession: delusion and the humanity that exposes the emotion underneath. In a story of technology and drugs, the simple decision to choose hope and trauma as central subjects is a minor miracle. And “Maniac” doesn’t end its daring streak there.

“Maniac” primarily follows Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) as they embark on a pharmaceutical trial to solve their problems of addiction and mental illness. Yet the doctors in charge, including Dr. James Mantleray (Justin Theroux) and Dr. Muramoto (Rome Kanda), have their own share of problems with a malfunctioning supercomputer and unforeseen side-effects. As the trial progresses, Annie and Owen find themselves inexplicably stuck in the same hallucinations, ranging from a Coens-esque caper to a high-class seance. It resembles a loving pastiche of genre and tone, threaded with careful attention to character.

Perhaps the closest comparisons to “Maniac” are FX’s “Legion” and HBO’s “Westworld,” two programs that regularly dazzle audiences with feats of visual splendor and experimental asides only to disappoint with character and emotional depth. Perhaps it is notable that both began to show flaws in their second season; thin characters can only take you so far. However, “Maniac” dodges this flaw by design, marketing itself as a miniseries similar to Fukunaga’s prior stint on the first season of “True Detective.” “Maniac” can indulge in the full range of creativity and imagination without worrying about plot or shallow characterizations in a way a continuing series cannot.

Another difference is in tone. “Maniac” is a comically weird show. Science-fiction elements dot its impeccable production design. A retro image of the future features the human embodiment of pop-up ads and the “Statue of Extra Liberty,” a world about three capitalistic steps from our own. Yet the comedy arises spontaneously out of situations, not as mere asides during dramatic scenes but as the purpose. Drama exists in the world of “Maniac,” but not at the expense of life’s absurdity. Next to the deliberate, often off-putting oddness of “Legion” and the humorless high drama of “Westworld,” “Maniac” is a colorfully exciting delight. It feels more true, even as it dips into absurd situations.

And, for the most part, the performances complement this delicate balance of drama and comedy. Stone channels her award-winning performances from “Birdman” and “La La Land” to play a disillusioned addict conning her way through life, bringing flinty determination and a wonderfully deadpan sense of humor. Stone has perfected the art of hard exteriors, of carefully peeling back layers for the audience to glimpse the vulnerabilities underneath. Theroux portrays an extremely odd character, full of awkward tics and emotional damage. Dr. Mantleray is only held together by Theroux’s strong, committed performance.

Yet Hill often feels miscast. In realistic scenes, he feels low-energy. In fantasy sequences, he feels overly mannered. His scenes with Stone crackle with chemistry but mostly reveal how much better her character is. Perhaps the best evidence comes from the first episode, which almost completely revolves around his character; “Maniac” opens inert and slow, very unlike its later entries. Compared to the second episode, which follows Stone’s Annie, the first an absolute slog. Perhaps Hill is trying to portray Owen as shell-shocked, deeply medicated and entirely depressed, but that does not mean Owen is a compelling central character.

In the long run, “Maniac” is a mind-bending delight, a show that rewards close attention but engages on an emotional level. And while its characterization may be shallow, its appeal lies elsewhere, in the pure, unadulterated emotion it draws from past trauma and a possible future. Something almost like hope.

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