Netflix’s Maniac introduces enough of new world building in its first episode to throw off prime time television viewers who’re accustomed to a quick payoff. There are several aspects to the New York City inhabited by these characters that feel jarringly different from the regular NYC we’re familiar with. Surveillance is rampant, omnipresent and a universally acknowledged and accepted thing (well, maybe that’s not so different). Phrases are plastered over iconic landmarks. The Statue of Liberty has gotten a facelift. And people still work on 80s machine that look like straight out Apple II Computers from the old days.
This amalgamation of facets makes the world of Maniac an apparently alternate universe, one forged on the best and / or worst aspects of the decades gone by. Running amok in this world is Jonah Hill’s Owen Milgrim, a meek, mild-mannered uber-under-confident employee suffering from an acute case of schizophrenia or some personality disorder that leads him to believe he’s “the chosen one”. The one that will save the world, the universe and other galaxies from whatever threat it is that threatens to obliterate them. He sees visions of tremors around him and objects shaking as a result, which he probably assumes to be the impending doom which he is to fight. And he frequently spots hallucinations of a brother popping up Fight Club style, encouraging him to make contact with a woman who’s a secret agent and who’ll give him further instructions on what to do next.
So hammered down is Owen by his woes that he blatantly believes whatever his delusions feed him. Through them, he comes to associate this woman with Emma Stone’s character, who he also frequently sees in advertisements here and there. After losing his job, he enlists with a pharmaceutical company for a new drug’s trials which brings him face to face with Stone, who clearly doesn’t want anything to do with him. Eventually Stone relents, telling Owen she’ll hand him more instructions although that’s easily a ploy on her part to get rid of a pestering Jonah Hill.
We also get some insight into Owen’s rich, extended family in an elaborate dinner sequence. The Milgrims as it turn out are filthy rich, having their own mansion to themselves. Owen is one of the four brothers in the family and has constantly been the timid, repressed sibling. A lot of the goings on in this sequence appear cryptic for now, such as Owen’s plan to run off with the family’s wealth, and his resistance to playing a game of Balderash upon repeated insistence by his brothers. I’m hoping things will become clearer in the future episodes.
Even though it’s futile to explicitly state this in a review by this point, the show’s production values definitely warrant a mention. Maniac is presented in a 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio and at no point does it feel like you’re watching a TV Show; rather, this looks quite like an extended 6-7 hour movie that’s been trimmed together to appear like a miniseries, which could also explain the awkward pacing. Now I know that’s been the norm with most Netflix shows but this one really does take things a step further in feeling more cinematic as opposed to more TV like. Let this be the last time I’m commenting on this, until something astounding happens in the show, forcing my hand back at this topic.
It’s not exactly a flying start which is a norm with Netflix shows, which often tend to eschew familiar patterns of pacing and tell their story in their own weird, experimental ways. I get the feeling Maniac is going to take a while to catch up and play its cards and with Jonah Hill’s and Emma Stone’s characters stuck in the drug trials, that could take the form of a slowly unfolding narrative. Regardless the zany nature of the world built-up coupled with Jonah Hill’s flawless performance make this an intriguing launch at best to something from which I’m expecting great things to follow.
Overall Score: 8.0 out of 10.0
We’re doing individual episode reviews of Maniac. Even though all episodes are out on Netflix, viewers may want to savor the show one episode at a time. These episode reviews may contain spoilers so discretion is advised while reading them.