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Arts in Review

When the absurd meets the ordinary

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Netflix’s newest short series Maniac has left me scratching my head. The psychedelic world it’s set in combined with the myriad of methodically placed easter eggs has overwhelmed my senses. Add in a thin, depressed Jonah Hill and you’ve got one weird combo that somehow works. Kind of like ketchup chips, or peanut butter on burgers (à la Shake Shack secret menu).

There are so many quirky things about this show, that to describe them would be to ruin its magic, so read further at your own discretion. I would hate to ruin it for you, because like rereading your favourite book, you can’t repeat that first, hypnotic experience.

This 10-episode series follows the characters Owen Milgram, played by Hill, and Annie Landsberg, played by the ever-endearing Emma Stone. Hill’s character lives with schizophrenia and delusions of grandeur, and Stone’s character is a grief stricken sister struggling with a drug addiction. The pair undergoes a trial that promises to take away all of their psychological pain, replacing the need for therapy all together. With each “treatment,” we enter into the minds of these characters as they confront their deepest pains, and watch as their individual adventures cross dimensions, time zones, and storylines.

Set in some alternate ‘80s-esque time, the technology is simultaneously outdated and far ahead of what we know, including DOS-type screens coupled with computers capable of feelings. The landscape reminds us of the cityscape in Blade Runner: cement, stark, and advertising set in neon lights outside of windows. The background itself is depressing, lending greater impact to the supposed mental state of Owen and Annie.

Stone, while a brilliant actor on her own, is vastly overshadowed by Hill’s talent. Hill, known for his “frat bro” type movies (such as 21 Jump Street, Sausage Party, and the ever-popular Superbad), shows his true chutzpah as an actor. He stepped into this character so convincingly that it will make every girl with a mothering bone in her body want to reach out and hug him.

In addition to Hill and Stone, the remarkable Sally Field takes her place among this crew of characters. She plays a popular psychologist who, in many iterations, shows up in every mind adventure Annie and Owen have. To the public, and in every iteration she takes in the mental adventures of our main characters, she’s kind, loving, and a champion of working through the tough stuff. In the real world of the show, she’s a chain-smoking, overbearing, maker-of-mommy-issues kind of a woman.

Despite all of the weird in this series, what captured me the most was some popcorn. It makes its first appearance during the first episode and shows back up in the last, and is a perfect example of how showrunner Patrick Somerville continued to hide both nuanced and blatant bits of breadcrumbs throughout this bonkers series.

The emphasis of the series is the importance of connections; it’s bookended by this idea, from the starting sequence of how the world began, to the final scenes of Annie and Owen breaking out of a psych hospital to go and defeat their demons together. People connect to people, bits of information connect to other bits all coming together to form a cohesive story about life, about love in its many forms, and the need we have to not be alone. The message is so ordinary, so everyday, but it is delivered in a package so absurd, maybe this time we’ll pay attention.

Overall, this is a series I would watch again, even if it is only to pick up on the bits of information I missed the first and second time around. If you are looking for a mind-bending, absolutely round the bend show to binge instead of doing your homework, Maniac is spot on.

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