Maniac may turn out to be TV’s strangest, trippiest, most biochemically fantastical love story this year — just when you thought the new other-dimensional love connection in Forever, featuring Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph, owned that distinction.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play star-crossed lovers who are put through several ringers and scenarios over the intentionally rambling, multi-narrative course of the Netflix original series. Our romantic sensibilities hope for the best for them even as we are often left scratching our heads in terms of the story’s goings-on. But it’s a happy, hypnotic, binge-impinging, head-scratching sensation, not so far removed from the riddle landscape of Twin Peaks: The Return, which was last year’s strangest, trippiest TV love story.
Playing Annie Landsberg and Owen Milgrim, Stone and Hill are would-be lovers from differing societal corners, plunged into an assortment of fantasy scenarios while under the influence of a wild pharmaceutical offered in a drug trial. After we’re introduced to them in the “real world,” before their trials and hallucinations, the narrative shape-shifting games begin. There they are white-trashy lemur thieves in the “Furs by Sebastian” episode, players in a film noir-ish séance scenario in “Exactly Like You,” and steering a station wagon toward a new dream life in Salt Lake City, all the way to the finale, which makes great use of the iris shot, an old-school cinematic effect from the silent era where the scene blacks out with a tightening circle closing down an image. Through most of the plot twists, they are caught in surreal out-of-body milieus, but always with hints of authentic beating hearts at the core. It all adds up to a tasty bit of television serial delirium, usually of a delicious kind.
Based on a Norwegian television series, the 10-episode Maniac is the darkly comic brainchild of creator-writer Patrick Somerville and director Cary Joji Fukunaga. They clearly recognize the malleability of this fantasy-based series format as a playground for a wild variety of scene-making within each episode, while still remaining tethered to a central premise. For an “old TV” analog, consider the weirdly kaleidoscopic series The Wild Wild West.
Somehow, in the madness of Somerville’s retro-futurist mise en scène (slyly lined with sci-fi levels of technology yet also basking in out-of-period-character, ’90s-style computers/fonts), flare-ups of genuine emotion and relatable relationship issues surface. Beyond the palpable mating game of our two leads, the narrative nudges up against themes concerning a strained mother-son relationship (the drug trial mad scientist played by Justin Theroux and his meddlesome psychologist mother played by Sally Field) and different coming-to-terms with siblings, for better and worse.
Stone and Hill, also executive producers, are solid fixtures on American screens by now, but they seem to savor working against type in this series. Stone trades in her “America’s sweetheart” charms from La La Land for the chameleonic range of personae demanded and afforded by Maniac’s story maze. Hill, leaner than in his Superbad bad-boy era, generally lumbers along in a numbed, medicated daze for most of the episodes, except for the dizzying episode 9, “Utangatta” a Finnish word for “something is amiss.”
In that climatic, penultimate episode, wacky surrealism jumps the rails and a super-blonde bewigged Hill musters up a mutant Icelandic-ish accent. References collide: NATO operatives morph into alien invaders, the gun-toting Stone skillfully wastes scores of business-suited villains, and, later in the episode, she has a genuinely emotional rapprochement with her dead sister.
It’s all in an episode’s work in the deliciously delirious world that is Maniac.