Binge or Purge?: Maniac.
This retro-futurist psycho-drama is a delightfully subversive mini-series with a stellar cast and striking ideas.
You could be forgiven for mistaking the title of this series for Manic instead of Maniac. The series is bold, eclectic, and utterly weird. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Beasts of No Nation) scores another coup for Netflix, directing a star studded cast through a hallucinatory version of reality where technology and culture has never progressed past the 1980’s, but science and medicine have raced ahead of our current understandings. The series, in its style and substance, feel like a blend of Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, and Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show. It’s weird, and stylish, and utterly watchable.
Maniac follows the journey of two individuals through a bleeding-edge medical trial. Owen (Jonah Hill) is the black sheep son of a wealthy and powerful family who suffers from hallucinations. He is haunted by a time traveling version of his older brother who insists Owen is key to saving the galaxy. In real life, his entitled older brother is blackmailing him into lying under oath to get him out of an undisclosed crime. Owen joins the trial because his hallucinations tell him to.
Annie (Emma Stone) is an anti-social drug addict whose favorite hit is an experimental designer drug that allows you to relive your worst experiences. Out of work, abandoned by her family, and estranged from her beloved little sister, wallowing in misery is both penance and escape for her. She joins the trial in order to score more of the drug.
Episode 1: The Chosen One!
A narrated tour of the universe by Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) posits that the multiverse is real, and every reality is as important as your own. From there we follow Owen as he is prepared to lie under oath on his brother’s behalf by his father (Gabriel Byrne). Owen swears he is fit to testify, denying having had any other visions since his psychotic break-down ten years ago. We see him ditching his meds, getting fired, and receiving “mission briefings” from a portal hopping version of his domineering brother Jed. His mission leads him to join a clinical trial and to look for a contact person whose face he’s seen on myriad billboards: Annie.
The first episode establishes the questions the series is going to explore. Fukunaga seeds the story with ideas of multiverse theory, neuroscience, VR, radical cognitive therapy and exotic medical treatments. Against this heady stuff we get a delightfully anachronistic setting where the 1980’s never ended: there are no cell phones, just big chunky land-lines, we have drones but they’re boxy and about as advanced as old remote controlled cars, and fashion is a weird blend of 80’s power suits for the rich and 1920’s pork pie hats and tweed suits for the working poor.
Overarching everything is meta-cultural stuff like Ad Buddy (poor gig workers who read ads to you in exchange for credits), Rent a Friend (poor gig workers paid to pretend to be long lost friends for credits), and a service where you sign up to replace missing fathers in broken families, essentially taking on their exact identity. It’s a weird dystopian blend of modern gig economies and depression-era work programs. It’s all weird, and all a hook to get you invested with questions but not answers.
Episode 2: Windmills.
We meet Annie as she is staring down her last dose of “A”, a designer drug. After waking from her torpor, she decides to give life one more shot. She tells off her roommates, goes home to talk to her father, and decides to head to Utah to see her estranged sister. Things don’t well. Her friends have taken her money for failure to pay rent, her dad is sealed into a VR machine to avoid dealing with his family, and she has to endure living commercials read to her by strangers to afford bus fair. She opts to go back on drugs. Problem is its gated behind a clinical trial, which she doesn’t qualify for. She has to get inventive to get a spot.
Emma Stone is a delight. The cast is excellent up and down, and very well written. I like Jonah Hill here, not something I usually do, but he feels more like the setting than like a character. He is another font of questions that need answers. Emma Stone’s character is the odd person out, in every way, so acts as an audience surrogate. Owen is part of this world, Annie is an unwilling participant. Seeing her story helps to ground all of the weird retro-futurist things happening around us.
Episode 3: Having a Day.
The first trial hits a snag when Owen fakes taking his “A” pill and Annie shows signs of being highly tolerant to the pill. Dr. Matsumoto (Rome Kanda) takes them in for intense private sessions, where Owen is forced to relive his worst experience on “A”, and Annie is forced to think fast in order not to be found out.
Things get gonzo in this episode, in all the right ways. The trial and weird characters around it feel like Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. The scientists are hilarious: Kanda and Theroux are deliciously weird and speak like characters in a late night TV ad for erectile dysfunction pills or healing crystals. Now that Owen and Annie are sort of a team of outsiders together, they really click. Jonah Hill becomes less a puzzle box and more a sympathetic character. Emma Stone softens her edges a bit and further cements her place as audience surrogate.
Most importantly, we start getting answers. Partial, and just as intriguing as the questions they address, but answers nonetheless. This isn’t going to be a J.J. Abrams wank-fest where the answers are either unimportant or altogether absent. Fukunaga looks to be intent on following this rabbit down the hole, and I’m happy to go along.
Binge or Purge?
Binge. I sat through three episodes at one in the morning and had to force myself to hit stop. The characters are interesting and very well played. The setting and tone of the piece is intriguing, with tons of space to explore while still feeling coherent. I would say that if the series is too weird and inexplicable for you, at least get through episode three. The world and characters really open up in that episode and establish what I think is going to be the structure of the show moving forward. It ends with a nice twist that will surprise those who may think they know where the show is going. Another fantastic outing from Fukunaga for Netflix.