Netflix’s miniseries MANIAC is a surprisingly thoughtful, heartfelt, and puzzling psychological sci-fi dark comedy. I started it expecting typical fare and found myself increasingly engaged with the oddball world and quirky characters.
Directed by the great Cary Fukunaga (TRUE DETECTIVE, BEASTS OF NO NATION) and written by Patrick Somerville (THE LEFTOVERS), the show is set in a sort of sci-fi 80s, a New York in which VCRs and indoor smoking mingle with “ad buddies” (people who pay for your meal and show you brochures from advertisers) and artificial intelligence. There’s a quirky, futuristic-yet-rundown ETERNAL SUNSHINE FOR A SPOTLESS MIND feel to the whole thing, which works here far better than did in Netflix’s THE DISCOVERY, which was pretty much an imitation.
MANIAC is about haunted souls Owen (Jonah Hill), the black sheep of his rich family under an enormous amount of pressure and of questionable sanity, and Annie (Emma Stone), who is plagued with guilt over a family tragedy. Desperate, they sign up for a pharma trial testing a novel treatment involving drugs and fantasy ideation using AI, which promises to eliminate therapy and heal the world of its psychological ailments.
The result is a very thoughtful and quirky story told on two levels, one about Owen and Annie and how they come to depend on each other, and the other about the project team involving an emotional AI and characters played by actors such as Justin Theroux and Sally Fields. Fast becoming one of my favorite actors, Theroux was great in Netflix’s MUTE and shows he can pull off comedy and sympathy with real skill. Sally Fields was fantastic as his domineering, cutting pop psychologist mom.
Overall, I really liked it. It didn’t reach for the stars but it solidly achieved its modest goals, providing an amusing, thoughtful, and entirely original story.