The Message of Maniac
Written by Joscelyn Ervin
Maniac is one of the weirdest Netflix shows to date -- excluding the most obscure and ridiculous series, Big Mouth, which is a whole other conversation. It stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as Annie and Owen. The series focuses on the lives of their characters, who are living in some kind of twisted future or reality that’s never clarified. By shoving them together in the same scientific drug study, the show emphasizes fate, mental illness, and the importance of friendship.
I was hooked as soon as I saw the first teaser trailer. There hasn’t been much attention as far as I’ve seen so far -- which is surprising. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are big names for something like a Netflix show. It feels out of their realm, so why is Maniac so irrelevant in pop culture? Even though this series is off-beat and centers around some tough themes, the message is worth it by the end.
In this odd series about friendship, mental illness, and weird science fiction, the message is hard to find in the warped reality where the characters live. The setting is never completely clear, but it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be watching the lives of Owen and Annie somewhere in the future - in a country that is also unclear. From the very beginning of the show, the viewers are shown that Owen is schizophrenic and Annie is a drug addict. Most of the plot consists of Owen struggling to break apart from his mental illness and Annie trying to numb, and potentially cure, herself with an experimental drug. Although Maniac highlights major topics such as mental illness, drug addiction, loss, and relationships with friends and family, these themes are hard to focus on with so much distraction. However, it’s worth the wait by the conclusion of the story.
The majority of the series is spent with Annie and Owen as they endure a volunteer scientific experiment hosted by a drug company that claims it’s drugs will “cure” the volunteers - if they survive that long. Instead of using “cure” as a physical term, however, the company’s drug heals volunteers mentally; they go through multiple stages, with pills labeled “A,” “B,” and “C.” Each episode is spent in the fantasy or dream that each character is going through after taking the given pill. The pills, along with an intelligent computer, force each volunteer to confront their major issues. Maniac is wisely subtle in this way. It doesn’t hand the audience the “answer” to such big issues. Instead, the conclusion is simple, meaningful, and ultimately surprising.
Of course, there is also much praise that needs to be given to Hill and Stone. Their portrayal of their characters, the diversity of roles in every fantasy, and the depth of each interaction drive the story forward in a way that is hard to resist. While Maniac may not seem like an interesting series, the themes, acting, plot diversity, and overall message are a huge win artistically. Like many of its predecessors, Maniac is a dark, gritty science-fiction show that reminds the audience that TV is not just for mere entertainment.