Episodes 1-2: “The Chosen One!” and “Windmills”
Starring: Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, Gabriel Byrne, Jemima Kirke, Billy Magnussen, and Julia Garner
Written by: Patrick Somerville
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Based on the Norwegian TV series Maniac
”The Pattern is The Pattern.”
Cary Joji Fukunaga and Netflix’s first major limited series gets off to a head-scratching, but engrossingly cool start in the first episodes of Maniac. Adapted from a Norwegian TV series (that is on Netflix now as well) by The Leftovers alum Patrick Somerville, this remake is a well acted and truly insane look at mental illness, addiction, and a commerce based future starring Superbad’s Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. When I first took on this assignment I had planned on doing the entire season in one fell swoop. As I took in the first episode, with its dense science fiction ideas and truly bizarre, but entertaining turns, I knew that this was a show that was going to demand a LOT more than just a rote season recap. So, let’s dive in, shall we?
We open in New York, some indeterminate time into the future. A future in which everything seems to have regressed in some places but advanced in others. While the characters and concept of the show are really solid, the sheer amount of subtle world building the show presents is really a wonder to behold. It’s almost Blade Runner-esque in its execution.
The first two episodes really draw viewers deep into the world with unexplained bits and bobs of future tech and services. Services like the AdBuddies, a group of human billboards that one can take advantage of to pay for certain things if you are willing to hear a random person drone on about job postings and sales. There is also a shockingly of the moment doxxing bodega, a literal office where one can pay money to hear the deepest, darkest secrets of a person in order to blackmail them. While a lot of the talk surrounding Maniac has been about the acting and bizarro 80’s inspired production design, the world that it presents in these opening episodes is really interesting and filled with clues as to why we are the way we are now and how our world has moved forward and backward.
But that isn’t to say that the acting isn’t great either! These first episodes are centered mainly around our two leads, Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone). Both lost in their own ways and drawn to a mysterious new therapy study led by Dr. James K. Manterlay (Justin Theroux, whose performance here is somewhere between his work in Mute and Your Highness).
Owen is a bit of a loser salaryman, excommunicated from his rich dynastic family due to his diagnosis of schizophrenia. To make matters worse, he is having increasingly erratic visions of his brother (a wild-eyed Billy Magnussen). He warns him of an incoming “mission” he must undertake in order to save his family and sanity. Hill’s turn in this opening episode is very muted and almost childlike, but still, a kind of endearing as you want Owen to find some semblance of peace amid his unquiet mind. He is also really dryly funny. He deadpan reacts to some of the stranger things his mind conjures as he tries to keep his shit together at an awkward family dinner.
Stone’s Annie is a bit more a rebellious case. Hooked on one of the drugs from the study, she inhabits the skin of a self-denying junkie really well. All volatile mood changes and sneering contempt for normals as she also tries (and fails) to get her own shit together to make good with her estranged family. Both episodes are neatly divided between the two characters. The second “Windmills,” is Annie’s proper introduction. The show really finds its footing, both in concept and in emotional core.
Of course, Annie’s turn to drugs is prompted by a tragedy in her past that Manterlay’s “thinking computer” pulls out of her. The reveal is truly shocking, thanks to Somerville’s suddenly dramatic scripting and Fukunaga’s terse, intimate direction. I was pretty entertained by the show’s first entry. It kinda leans into silliness and baroque comedy. I was truly hooked thanks to the second. Now, I am very, very curious to see just how the hell Owen and Annie will make it out the other side of this “bold new treatment.”
Verdict: Watch, But Don’t Binge
Positively bursting with visual comedy and fantastic performances, episodes one and two of Maniac are a truly engrossing experience. But one that I feel should be savored instead of burned through in a day and evening. Patrick Somerville and Cary Joji Fukunaga have really built an incredible world here in these first two episodes. I think it would prove a disservice to their work if their show was simply “watched” and not really savored. It isn’t going anywhere, people. Let’s just enjoy the ride. Be seeing you.