Even for a service that has produced one comedy show about a woman emerging from a 15-year imprisonment in a bunker and another about ethics, philosophy and the inadequacy of frozen yoghurt set in a non-denominational heaven, Netflix’s latest bet is a brave one.
Maniac, whose 10 episodes are streaming now, is loosely based on a Norwegian television series. It is written by Patrick Somerville and directed by Cary Fukunaga, the latter — who has just been confirmed as the new James Bond director — bringing all the command and sensitivity of his revered first season of True Detective. Maniac’s world is a near-future New York in which a Statue of Extra Liberty dominates the skyline, rents are 87 per cent of annual incomes (make that very-near-future New York) and people supplement their earnings by becoming pretend husbands to widows, friend proxies for the extra-busy and guinea pigs for big drug companies with even bigger ambitions. But it feels as close and intimate as Fukunaga’s heat-soaked pocket of contemporary Louisiana.
The pilot episode is dense set-up for the rest of a season that will reinvent its protagonists and scatter them across time, space and genre without — thanks to the tightest of writing and career-best performances from Jonah Hill and Emma Stone — ever losing its thread.
Hill and Stone both play against type. The former is Owen Milgrim, the bullied, introverted and mentally unstable son of a wealthy family with much brutishly better scions to be getting on with, including one whom Owen is due to alibi at a trial for an unspecified crime. He has visions of his brother Jed, who tells him that streetwise stranger Annie Landsberg (Stone) will reveal to him his heroic mission in life.
The pair meet at a trial for a radical new drug intended to eradicate all unnecessary human pain and suffering, which — with the participants put under in their pods — will provide the launchpad for the cross-dimensional border stories of the coming episodes. Spoiler alert: the proposed pharmaceutical elimination of human suffering does not go as smoothly as hoped.
Maniac is already compelling. You might come for the high-concept sci-fi element but you stay for the monstrous Milgrim family dynamics, the subtlety of Owen’s sorrow and — a little further down the road — the sad, strange unpacking of Annie’s broken and dysfunctional relationships. Hill keeps his comic chops under wraps and although it should never be a surprise when brilliant comedy actors prove to be brilliant dramatic actors, somehow it always comes as a revelation.
Similarly, Stone keeps a lid on the ebullient charm with which she made her name (and earned her place as last year’s highest paid female actor) in the likes of La La Land and Crazy, Stupid, Love, and gives us something much more akin to her mesmerising part as the tough, funny ex-drug addict in Birdman.
I am making it sound depressing. It is not. It is off-kilter, surreal, intriguing and moving. It also has a whimsical streak (automated dog poo recycling bots, the a capella group entertainment, the painter who goes on sabbatical before including Owen in the family portrait) working throughout that leavens it all, leaving it closer to a warm Westworld than a cold Good Place or chilly Kimmy Schmidt. Though the greatest pleasure, possibly, is seeing the two revelatory leads clearly having the time of their ridiculously talented lives. Actors, of course, are all maniacs.
Don’t miss it!
Maniac is streaming now on Netflix.