Maniac goes down as easy as a pill. The new Netflix series is a compact little mindfuck -- filled with little moments of wonder -- starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as two people in a pharmaceutical trial that forces them to address past traumas. It also has a depressed AI being played by Sally Field, a subplot involving a kidnapped lemur, and Justin Theroux in a wig. It's a consummately watchable show that sometimes obfuscates its core message about people in the throes of mental illness with its zany dreamworld antics.
Directed by True Detective's Cary Joji Fukunaga, Maniac takes place in a dystopian New York where if you don't have train fare, you can ride with an Ad Buddy, which is basically an advertisement in human form that spouts its selling points at you. Existing on the margins of this society are Annie Landsberg (Stone) and Owen Milgram (Hill). The former is a drug addict who will resort to blackmail to get her fix. The latter is the black sheep of a wealthy family who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and hallucinates a man identical to his brother (Billy Magnussen) who convinces him he is on a mission to save the world. Both Owen and Annie enter Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech's 73rd iteration of a test for a series of drugs that promise to deep-clean their consciousness.
To explain exactly what happens next would take far too long and be far too confusing. Most of Maniac is the kind of thing you just have to watch. Still, Annie and Owen slip into a series of psychoactive pill-induced dreams that grow increasingly intertwined. They drift in and out of their real personas in these hallucinations, which are both absurdist and grounded in their own pain. In one, they are dashing con artists at a 1940s cocktail party; in another, they meet at the UN after an alien creature has been killed. Meanwhile, things grow increasingly chaotic at the lab where the computer that runs the operation has become melancholy, necessitating the return of the project's unstable creator, Dr. James Mantleray (Theroux), because the AI was modeled after his own mother, a self-help guru (Field). Got it?
While Fukunaga, Stone, and Hill were attached to the show -- which is based on a Norwegian format -- before anything was actually written, The Leftovers' Patrick Somerville was brought on to flesh out this wild journey through the psyche. He answered some of our lingering questions after finishing the reality-bending series.