In one of the many, many fantasy sequences in Netflix's new limited series Maniac, pharmaceutical trial participants Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) find themselves in a magician's mansion some time in the first half of the 20th century, on the hunt for a lost chapter of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
The fiction, Annie suggests, holds a mystical power that will cause anyone who reads it to become lost in a tangle of self-created fantasy worlds, spinning out yarn after yarn until they die – a prospect that she, wracked with grief, finds rather appealing.
It’s an inconsequential scene from this intricate black comedy by True Detective director Cary Joji Fukunaga, but it goes some way to explaining the series itself, which ponders the nature of reality, consciousness and human connection.
If that sounds dense and a little too on-the-nose, it is. But, for all the pitfalls of the high-concept storytelling on display here, there is much to celebrate about this hugely original series, not least the brilliance of its mega-star leads and the vivid, dystopian world crafted by one of the most exciting directors in TV.
Those who make it past the confounding opening episodes will reap the rewards.
The 10-part mini-series is a loose remake of a Norwegian comedy series of the same name from 2014, about a man in a mental asylum whose inner fantasy worlds are played out on screen. But, in truth, little has been pulled from the original, beyond the name and the base concept of inhabiting multiple, self-created realities.
Fukunaga and head writer/creator Patrick Somerville (The Bridge, The Leftovers) have spun Maniac into something much richer and more purposeful, taking cues from a broad range of sources including Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2001: A Space Odyssey (there are several hat-tips to Kubrick throughout the series) and Spike Jonze’s Her.
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While the original was all about one man's inner fantasies, this version is built around the seemingly cosmic alignment of Owen Milgrim and Annie Landsberg, two angsty loners who meet in a pharmaceutical trial testing a series of pills which its creator believes can “solve the mind” and eradicate mental illness.
The New York setting feels like a vision of 2018 imagined in the cinema of the 1960s, in which mechanical robots roam the streets cleaning up dog excrement, walking advertisements (human, not robot) known as “ad-buddys” follow people around regaling them half-heartedly with the benefits of various products, and the Statue of Liberty has been replaced by the Statue of Extra Liberty: a winged man holding a dagger.
Both protagonists have good reason to seek refuge – and recovery – in the trial. Owen suffered a breakdown ten years ago, and has had difficulty separating the real from the fantasy ever since. He sees objects moving on their own, and popcorn kernels inexplicably popping on the ground. To make matters worse, his awful, wealthy family are pressuring him into providing a false alibi for his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen), who has been accused of sexually assaulting a colleague.
Annie, on the other hand, has lost touch with her family in the wake of a traumatic event, and has become hooked on one of the drugs from the trial which she obtained illegally. She is intent on accessing a greater supply by any means necessary.
Just like the film Her, which sees Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely greeting card writer fall for an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson, the pitfalls of isolation in the face of technological advances drive the narrative here.
In the Maniac universe, human connection is even more elusive than in our own: businesses leasing out replacement friends and family members (an actual phenomenon in Japan) are thriving. The outside world is so grim that the sterilised environment of a laboratory seems almost like a holiday.
Stepping into Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech, they enter the realm of Dr James Mantleray (Justin Theroux), an eccentric and neurotic neuroscientist, and his chain-smoking understudy Dr Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno).
Together they oversee the implementation of the drug programme. Here, things get really weird.
The drugs lull Annie, Owen and the other participants into comas, where they enter dream-worlds that help them confront and understand issues from their past. The show shuffles through a variety of genres – mid noughties gangster drama, 1960s sci-fi – while Owen and Annie find themselves inexplicably interlinked in a shared fantasy.
Remarkably, these wild tonal shifts are relatively seamless – but the sequences tend to drag, and often the significance they hold for each character is unclear. One sequence sees Annie and her sister, Ellie (Ozark’s Julia Garner) don elf ears and journey through a world inspired by Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Another features Annie and Owen masquerading as a lower-class married couple from New Jersey in the 1980s, devising a plan to steal a lemur from a gangster who owns a fur outlet. It spans an entire episode, and is tedious.
This demands a lot from Hill and Stone, but the duo, who have both been recognised by the Academy for their dramatic work after launching their careers in comedy, are well up to the challenge. The nuances of Hill's Owen, a damaged, heartbroken young man, are all the clearer when juxtaposed with the zanier characters he inhabits across the course of the series.
The action flits back and forth between the real world and the imaginary, as Mantleray and Fujita attend to GRTA, the computer that oversees the programme – named after his mother, Greta, played by Sally Field – which becomes increasingly sentient and volatile. The medical professionals, all deadpan, seem cut from Yorgos Lanthamos’s (The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer) filmography.
The show's biggest problem is a relatively unique one for a Netflix show: it left me wanting more. Much more, in fact.
That's not to say that there should be another series, but the ending, which arrives after a dizzying melee of fantasy and reality, felt rushed and had me ruing the time we were forced to spend with dream-state versions of our characters over their, infinitely more interesting, real-world selves.
Fukunaga and Somerville get away with this, however, as the overall vibe of the show is so vivid and colourful, and its emotional crescendos so resonant. Plus, there is something deeply comforting in the idea that these two lost souls become intertwined, even in this grim, not-too-distant dystopia.
Maniac launches on Netflix UK on Friday 21st September