Despite humming with oddball energy and aspiring to absurdist extremes, Maniac is the simple story of two broken people who heal by connecting with one another. Owen (Jonah Hill), the black sheep of a wealthy family, suffers from schizophrenia. Annie (Emma Stone), a traumatized drug addict, is riddled with crippling guilt over a personal tragedy. By chance, the two sign up for the same trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, to test a drug meant to end people’s mental anguish and as such the need for therapy.
The drug in question drives patients into their own subconscious, producing hallucinations meant to confront the source of a patient’s trauma. For Owen and Annie, these visions include the former taking the form of a hawk and the latter becoming a deadly C.I.A. agent. These visions, some of which comprise entire episodes, are exciting, off-kilter, and, above all, immersive—though perhaps to a fault, as they distract from the intended essence of the series, which is the emotional toll of mental illness. When Owen envisions himself as an eccentric Icelandic diplomat, for instance, Maniac is concerned more with mining his accent and wig for laughs and disorienting viewers and less with coherently relating Owen’s vision to his psychological state.
Outside of the Neberdine lab, Maniac‘s alluring vision of New York City, at once familiar and thoroughly askew, more effectively communicates Owen and Annie’s daily anguish. Owen lives in a depressingly small Roosevelt Island studio, a half-shoebox that reflects his paranoia and sense of isolation. His apartment is both retro and futuristic, like the city that surrounds it. Inelegant droids patrol sidewalks cleaning up dog waste, and antiquated-looking computers are artificially intelligent. New Yorkers hire “Friend Proxies” and rent husbands. The series homes in on the isolating nature of its crowded landscape, and submits that Owen’s psychiatric condition and Annie’s insurmountable guilt are secondary to their true ailment: loneliness.
If Maniac raises questions that it doesn’t fully answer, that’s because the series is more hung up on its whimsical world building than on the particulars of Owen and Annie’s conditions that don’t point to their loneliness. Before he submits to the trials, Owen notices coincidences everywhere, which lead him to Neberdine, to Annie, and, eventually, to heroic actions in the show’s climax. Yet series creator Patrick Somerville and director Cary Joji Fukunaga are coy about the veracity of Owen’s visions, and, more importantly, how his very real schizophrenia can be curbed by meaningful social connection.
Maniac‘s most inventive and thematically coherent stretches unfold once Owen and Annie begin their chemical trials. The pair—for initially mysterious reasons—are drawn into each other’s visions, which unfold in settings as disparate as ‘80s-era Long Island and an elven fantasy world. In addition to suggesting their cosmic connection, these shared hallucinations reveal the prevailing interests of Somerville and Fukanaga, who realize dreamscapes with a specificity that contrasts their simplistic view of Owen and Emma’s mental states. They seize the opportunity to gleefully leap between genres, placing their star actors in a variety of outlandish costumes and situations.
Fukanaga vividly renders the show’s environments, which include expanses of wilderness, claustrophobic hotel rooms, antiseptic government buildings, and crummy strip-malls. The director choreographs exhilarating shootouts, darkly comic massacres, and seductive cat-and-mouse games, even dotting Owen and Annie’s visions with subtle Easter eggs which connect to the characters’ real lives. And these sequences visibly energize the show’s leads: Hill, unshackled from Owen’s dour posture, slips comfortably into comedy, and Stone ably illustrates her range by melding gamely into each setting.
Still, for long stretches of the series, viewers are encouraged to wonder if every vision, even Annie herself, is a projection of Owen’s fractured psyche—a position Owen himself sometimes entertains. As such, one is justified in fearing that the potential revelation of such a tired twist will undermine the show’s most absorbing, emotionally resonant segments.
The Neberdine lab that houses Owen and Annie’s bodies is as bizarre as their dreams, with Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), a hilariously hapless experiment head, battling his intervening celebrity-therapist mother, Greta (Sally Field), who cruelly undermines him at every turn. And as the experiment becomes increasingly unhinged, Owen and Annie must try to escape the labyrinth of their own mind, and the once frivolous-seeming excursions into their subconscious assume an urgent, pressing quality.
The conclusion of Maniac is only slightly ambiguous, and testifies clearly to the simplified truth that embracing human connectivity opens a person up to the power of healing. This saccharine conclusion fits the series, which, while impressive for its detailed and certainly imaginative world building, rarely dares to truly confound its audience—or challenge us with an assessment of mental health that doesn’t amount to hallmark sentimentality.