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“Maniac” Creates Psychedelic Plot, Trips Over Subversive Tropes

Illustration by Mia Turner

“So seven years ago, and shortly after you and your therapist mother stopped speaking, you decided to develop a sequence of drugs that would eliminate therapy all together. But now your mother computer is sad, so you had to call in your real mother to talk to her about her feelings. Is that all correct?” This is a plotline summary given by a character in the new Netflix show, Maniac. It may all sound rather confusing and highly orchestrated, and that’s because it is. The show begins its tumultuous journey by focusing on Owen, a downtrodden middle-aged man living in New York who is attempting to distance himself from his obscenely rich and practically aristocratic family. Owen, played by Jonah Hill, has particular difficulty achieving this for two reasons. First, he has just lost his job, and his family is making the enticing offer of a position at their company and a consistent allowance, if he wishes to live in dependency and close proximity to his condescending relatives. Secondly, Owen’s brother has been put on trial for a mysterious offense. Everyone in the family seems to be unconcerned of whether he did it or not. His father, the head of the family, has called Owen to testify in favor of his brother in court, which Owen agrees to do. On top of this, Owen is a schizophrenic whose ability to distinguish reality from his waking dreams fluctuates unpredictably.

But Owen’s plot is really only half the show, or maybe a third. Shortly after being thrown into Owen’s scandalous story, we are introduced to Annie, who is fighting a losing battle against her own familial demons. She copes by abusing an experimental drug, known only as the A pill. This pill addiction leads her to enter a shady drug trial of the pharmaceutical company trying to get the A pill past testing.

This drug trial is where the two characters paths cross, and where the show really starts to move along in some respects, and gets stuck in the mud in others. Immersed in the environment of the strange Neberdine pharmaceuticals testing facility, we begin a journey into the traumas and imaginations of our troubled protagonists. At this point we also begin to follow the mishaps of the test conductors and their unpredictable supercomputer, developed to guide the patients through the therapeutic process of taking the A, B, and C pills.    

Aside from the intricacies of the heavily laden plot, the show offers plenty to contemplate in its tone alone. There is often a conflicting personality in the scripts and actors. Some characters live in perpetual melancholy, with muted emotions and under whelmed expressions. Owen behaves this way, and that puts him completely at odds with the scientists at the Neberdine facility. The conductors are animated to say the least, and their melodrama often reaches comical proportions. Scene changes around these characters are often shocking and unexpected, leaving the audience questioning whether Netflix has jumped them over to another show.

There are some truly stand-out scenes in Maniac, some standing out awkwardly. Others achieve real emotional potency, or just stand out as being cool and unusual, like Jonah Hill driving around in an old Cadillac, equipped with glorious ponytail braids, to “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by the Geto Boys. Maniac is, if anything, very ambitious in its premise, and it delivers on parts of what it promises. It makes trippy and enjoyable strides when it comes to developing a very laced and intricate journey, highlighting its skill of creating unique environments, and bending characters to unfold effective allegories which delve deeper into the emotional history of its characters.

It falters when addressing the nature of schizophrenia and allows the audience to lose track of Owen’s original storyline completely. It often fails to create a real sense of weight or consequence of the actions.

When watching Owen slip through a mirror to retrieve the lost chapter of the original edition of Don Quixote, and then marvel at why it is the size of a matchbox, the audience may suffer a moment of complete overload. It makes viewer feel as lost as the characters are in their drug induced trips. They may also embrace the absolutely superfluous details.

It’s better to bask in this residual warmth rather than question the motives of every scene, and save yourself from entering your own nightmarish trip.