Is this just going to be another Legion?
That’s the question I’ve had with Maniac from the moment Netflix released the first mind-bending trailer. It’s a show set in a mental institution. It uses the psychoses of two would-be lovers to spin out mindfuck imagery forever stretching the cinematic bounds of television. It might also be challenged to give all of this admirably form-breaking storytelling any real emotional heft. Lastly, it comes from an auteur known for a prior drama that merely hinted at the level of experimentation now on full display, Noah Hawley and Fargo in Legion’s case, Cary Fukunaga and True Detective in Maniac’s case.
I found all of that to be intoxicating on Legion. At first. Before long, though, I grew cold to the show’s endless detours into the avante-garde, finding the larger exploration and deconstruction of the central character’s complicated mind and splintered personalities to come at the expense of giving the rest of the ensemble anything worthwhile. Aubrey Plaza vamping it up and Jermaine Clement exuding 60s cool can only go so far. By the end of the second season, Vox described Legion has suffering from an “emptiness at its core.”
It’s far too early to say what will happen with Maniac. I’m only two episodes into its 10-episode limited event season. Fukunaga and co-creator Patrick Somerville, adapting from a Norwegian series, are dutifully establishing character and universe at this point. The Cloud Atlas crazy is still on the horizon. The first two episodes act as dual origin stories for the central characters.
I’m about to spoil the general plots of both episodes but not the grand revelations. You’ve been warned.
We start on Jonah Hill.
The plot is relatively simple: Owen (Hill, speaking in a barely-keeping-it-together whisper), the mentally disturbed fifth son of a wealthy industrialist (Gabriel Byrne) loses his job, furloughed indefinitely in an economy where this kind of thing happens all the time. Rather than run to family for help, he volunteers for a mysterious pharmaceutical trial. Or, more accurately, he’s volunteered for one. He receives a recruitment packet from a courier and is immediately called by a strange woman claiming he’s the perfect specimen for their trial.
Since that falls into his delusions in which he believes himself to be a chosen one figure, he agrees to take part. Once there, he meets Annie (Emma Stone), a fellow volunteer. She’s also a woman he has seen in multiple ads. Or at least he thinks he has.
See, he suffered a mental break a decade ago where he struggled to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and he’s never really recovered. He’s just much better at hiding it now. This pharmaceutical trial is clearly the thing will either push him over the edge or save him or, more likely, both.
The second episode (“Windmills”) turns its camera toward Annie.
We follow her a sad existence bumming money from friends and struggling to afford even a train ticket to see a relative out of town. She’s more high-functioning than Owen, but has become addicted to the drug she was prescribed for depression after a traumatic event involving a family members. Whereas Owen comes to the trial with delusions of grandeur and proudly tells Annie “everyone thought I was crazy, but they were all wrong,” she is simply a junkie seeking a fix. Either way, the end up in the same research lab strapped to Total Recall chairs.
Get ready to have your mind blown and, without spoiling anymore, your heart broken.
The world building and strange timelessness
Befitting a show build around the mentally disturbed, the show itself is purposefully askew. Justin Theroux, whose scientist character remains a mystery, opens the pilot with an impossibly creepy summation of life and science on the planet. We seem to have been dropped into a world weirdly set in both the past (look at all that analog tech!) and the future (look at the Blade Runner-style skyscraper advertising! shudder in the presence of Ad Buddies, a sadly entirely plausible next step of the share economy).
There are Russian tourists wearing MAGA-colored hats throughout New York. The city has a new Statue of Liberty. And rich white dudes belt Barbershop tunes to the amusement of party guests. It’s enough to leave us as disoriented as the Owen and Annie.
THE BOTTOM LINE
These first two episodes tell us who these people are and how they got to be at the trial, and in the background, Fukunaga and Somerville paint a picture of an intriguing world which looks like our past, present and future all at the same time. The mindfucking, however, has barely even begun. I’m still a little worried there might end up being more style than substance here, but it’s sure to be quite the trip.
What about you?
One Last Thing…
There is a dog poop-scooping robot, and I’m dying to know more.
Why is it named Tristan? How common are they? Do they possibly have any degree of sentience ala the Rick & Morty butter-passing robot that suffered an existential crisis? And, more importantly, just how quickly can we get to them in the real world? Asking as a dog owner.