Fast-Paced And Proudly Unusual, 'Maniac' Dives Into The Mysteries Of The Mind

Sep 20, 2018
Originally published on September 21, 2018 1:14 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow, Netflix presents "Maniac," a new 10-part series starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. It's a psychological exploration of alternative realities and identities. And our TV critic David Bianculli says it's part comedy, part drama and all over the place, and he highly approves. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Describing "Maniac" too deeply runs two risks I'm hoping to avoid. One is to reveal the delightful surprises that pop up along the way. The other is to explain the premise in too much detail, making it sound either convoluted or boring. But "Maniac," a fast-paced, proudly unusual new 10-part Netflix series, isn't either of those things. It's fresh. It's unpredictable. And by design as well as subject matter, it's intentionally and creatively schizophrenic.

"Maniac" the series, like its main characters played by Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, has more than one personality. Sometimes, the drama of the story pulls you in and makes you care about the emotions with which these characters are struggling. Other times, the sudden turns into comedy arrive so quickly and so confidently you're all but startled by the change of tone.

I attribute this, in part, to the fact that "Maniac" is adapted about as freely as an adaptation can get from a weird one-season series from Norway produced in 2014. It's also available on Netflix, by the way, for anyone curious enough to compare and contrast. That "Maniac" was about a mild-mannered man named Espen who was committed to an institution, lived in a series of fantasy worlds and inserted those around him into his own hallucinations. It was an all-out comedy spoofing several TV and film genres, but still making you genuinely feel for and root for the main character.

This new "Maniac" doubles down in all respects. Instead of a mental institution, the setting is a slightly futuristic pharmacological study. Instead of one patient protagonist, there are two. Emma Stone plays Annie, whose psychological problems include a traumatic past incident with her younger sister. Jonah Hill plays Owen, whose problems include seeing people who don't exist, including a brother who may not exist either, but who shows up on a bench at Battery Park to deliver Owen some news, even though Owen is pretty sure, but not positive, that his brother, like the message he delivers, is a figment of Owen's imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MANIAC")

BILLY MAGNUSSEN: (As Jed) Owen, this week must be a doozy for you, huh? You thought you were rid of me, but I have new information. This time I know you've been chosen to save the world. You're going to be a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN BLARING)

JONAH HILL: (As Owen) I don't want this. I don't want it. I don't want this.

MAGNUSSEN: (As Jed) The details of the mission will be delivered to you by an agent - a woman. You'll know when you see her, trust me. Just make contact with her. The pattern is the pattern.

BIANCULLI: Owen suspects that Annie is that person. And eventually, they meet up in the waiting room of a big medical lab, volunteers at the same experimental drug study. But their initial exchange is hardly what you'd call a meet cute kind of encounter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MANIAC")

EMMA STONE: (As Annie) Stop looking at me.

HILL: (As Owen) Did you lose your husband recently?

STONE: (As Annie) Huh?

HILL: (As Owen) Did you lose your husband recently?

STONE: (As Annie) No.

HILL: (As Owen) But I just saw...

STONE: (As Annie) Leave me alone.

HILL: (As Owen) Do you play golf in Hilton Hit?

STONE: (As Annie) I'll kill you. I have a gun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Attention please, all...

BIANCULLI: While they don't get along in the real world, Annie and Owen do connect almost instantly once they're given pills and induced into dream states. For some reason, Annie and Owen's psyches and dreams and fantasies keep getting linked. If she's a dissatisfied wife from Long Island, he's her equally unhappy husband. If she's a thief and con artist, he's one of her victims. From film noir to "Lord Of The Rings" style fantasy, these two, together or alone, can go almost anywhere and be almost anyone and do. For an actor, it's a dream job - several of them, and both Hill and Stone make the most of it. Her more than him, but they're both a lot of fun to watch and follow.

And they're not the only actors contributing significantly in "Maniac." Julia Garner, who plays the backwoods thief on Netflix's "Ozark," is very touching as Annie's younger sister. Justin Theroux arrives partway through as a not-quite-mad scientist, and Sally Field arrives a bit later playing his ultra-successful, ultra-controlling mother. It's an outlandish role for the former Gidget and former Mrs. Lincoln, and Sally Field has a blast with it. You're likely to have a blast with "Maniac," too.

But as with so many streaming service series these days, I counsel a bit of patience. The first episode belongs mostly to Owen, the second to Annie, so it's a while before they get to share scenes in fantasy and in real life. And even that real life isn't exactly real or at least the reality we're used to, but it's all part of the fun.

Every episode of this new "Maniac" is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of the great first season of HBO's "True Detective." And the adaptation is created and overseen by Patrick Somerville, a writer-producer on another artistic HBO series, "The Leftovers." Most of the time, this "Maniac" is a lot more intense than its Norwegian inspiration and more entertaining, too.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific."

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(SOUNDBITE OF DEXTER GORDON'S "THE PANTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.