Maniac Blurs Line Between Movies and TV More Than Ever

We examine how Emma Stone and Jonah Hill's new Netflix show, Maniac, may be the most cinematic TV series ever produced.

This article contains Maniac spoilers.

We’ve been here before. That was the immediate sensation at seeing the underlying NPB labs wherein the fantastical drug tests of Maniac occur. With the circular white table surrounded by a series of wide chairs, and a central overhead light that’s buttressed by a ring of cabinet-shaped television screens, everything about the set is intimately familiar for those who’ve viewed one of the most iconic scenes in science fiction history—the one where an alien pops out of John Hurt’s chest and onto the dinner table in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

However, this homage, which is one of the most overt in Maniac, is more than just an intertextual reference that has been reduced to the term “easter egg” in pop culture media (a term that Maniac director Cary Joji Fukunaga apparently detests). It is also one of the many influences from a century of cinematic vernacular, and short-form narrative storytelling, that has somehow wound up on a show for the streaming service most accused of “killing” cinema. This is not a coincidence. As Maniac slowly unfurls its many narrative twists and surrealist turns, it becomes apparent that it is making an original science fiction story that happily embraces its big screen inspirations. And in the supposed “golden age of television,” it does more to blur the line between movies and TV than any series before it.

In the case of Alien, the visual cues taken from Michael Seymour’s set design add up to something greater than meer affectation or empty calorie callback to something you recall from your youth; it adds to the time-bending reality of Maniac and its larger tonal ambitions. While the whole series gleefully becomes anachronistic in its modern setting, including futuristic robots picking up dog poop off the sidewalks and retro NYC subway trains from 50 years ago, the use of Alien’s white-on-yellow “space trucker” aesthetic for the lab is built around a narrative irony in the story. Instead of aiming for a HAL 9000 supercomputer, Justin Theroux’s Dr. James K. Mantleray has constructed a machine in the literal image and vocal tenor of his mother, just as the DOT-system based super-computer in Alien is named “MOTHER.”

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It’s on-the-nose, but services a vision that is unusual even in an era where TV is taking major chances. Admittedly, the series is a byproduct of television’s new standing in the narrative pecking order. Not unlike other recent limited series, including one directed by Fukunaga via True Detective’s first season, Maniac stars high-caliber actors at the height of careers so successful that they’re stuck with the double-edged title of “movie star.” Both Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have so deftly picked their projects to date that, at a certain budgetary ceiling, they can get movies greenlit, especially as Stone is fresh off her Oscar win for the relatively beloved La La Land.

Yet, like other popular actors such as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon executive producing and starring in HBO’s Big Little Lies, or Matthew McConaughey partnering with Fukunaga on True Detective mid-McConaissaince, Stone and Hill agreed to produce and lead Maniac for streaming as opposed to doing a film together. Like so many other movie stars signing on to limited stints in anthological sagas or s miniseries, Stone and Hill likely saw Maniac offered beautifully realized characters in Fukunaga and co-creator Patrick Somerville’s treatment. And Netflix was an ideal platform to distribute it to the mainstream.

Thus to the small screen they’ve jumped, ostensibly playing Annie and Owen in the series, two very troubled and broken personalities in a surrealist world. Both are richly crafted roles, and each’s character is only a sample of the variety of personas they get to revel in due to fantasies triggered by the experimental drugs Owen and Annie take.

We see Stone as a perm-wearing working class mom in 1980s New Jersey, and as an immaculately bejeweled femme fatale in a 1930s setting vaguely reminiscent of her work on Magic in the Moonlight. And we witness Hill match her perm with his deliciously grotesque mullet, and then try his best to pull off a cross between Cary Grant’s chicness and William Powell’s Thin Man detachment in the ‘30s. Stone is even forced to endure what is reportedly her least favorite genre: high-fantasy. (Fukunaga puts her in elf ears and gives her a bow and arrow she was clearly forced to use without practice.) My personal favorite narrative detour though is a Cold War farce scenario wherein Hill is allowed to embrace his comedic instincts as a buffoon with an Icelandic accent, and Stone leans into an equally thick Texan cadence that is only eclipsed by the over-the-top action sequence that shows off her marksmanship afterward.

Like Fukunaga’s work on True Detective, this specific fantasy allows the filmmaker to showcase his visual acumen via a one-take Steadicam shots that giddily track Stone laying waste to an entire army of spy movie fodder. But time and again, each of these fantasies refer to an apparent cinematic reference. In the case of the Reykjavik-meets-San Antonio sequence, the motif of that entire episode is taken from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In an interview with The Business Insider, Fukunaga denied that he intentionally reached toward that Kubrickian guffaws about world leaders behaving badly, and in that sense, it defies the easter egg ethos he loathes because it isn’t about servicing an audience; it just happens to draw from the inspirations of a visual storyteller. The giant globe above a semicircular table; Hill relishing his most outlandish comical turn in Maniac, complete with a cartoonish accent; it inherently draws on the cinematic iconography of Peter Sellers’ thick German accent and multiple roles in the war rooms of Strangelove.

More than any long-form narrative storytelling device borne from decades of TV tropes, Maniac resembles a cinematic sensibility down to its genetic makeup. While it is almost glib to suggest a limited series resembles a film these days, in the case of Maniac, its very headspace stems from moviemaking. That includes the rest of its fantasies, be it the intentional invoking of the Coen Brothers’ early aesthetic in the ‘80s lemur rescue during the Jersey Shore detour, or the vaguely satirical sendup of Peter Jackson’s visual lexicon from The Lord of the Rings films in Stone/Annie’s least favorite genre. Even the overarching storyline draws from familiar stories of the surreal, such as Charlie Kaufman.

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The way in which these influences are used to build something unique is complemented by how the show’s narrative structure departs from contemporary shows, limited or otherwise, as well as mainstream multiplex fare. While plenty of content on Netflix has used literal numerical chapter signifiers for the title of each episode (House of Cards ended on “Chapter 65” in season 5, whereas Stranger Things marks each season as its own novel in eight or nine “chapters”), all of them feel broken down by episode or individual installments, even in a binging format. They can be dissected on the value of a whole episode being devoted to Eleven traveling to Chicago. Whereas reviewing Maniac episode-by-episode almost seems a fool’s errand.

The wholeness of Maniac’s vision to be digested as a single entity is evident in how the episodes are broken down. While there are more traditionally measured hours of television among Maniac’s 10 episodes, with some coming in at around 45 minutes of length (which is about an average hour of broadcast network TV without commercials), many run under 30 minutes. The seventh episode is a scant 26 minutes. In this way, the series more accurately resembles a novel’s pacing through chapters than House of Cards or Stranger Things ever have. Each chapter in Maniac is a mere section of storytelling that is no longer or short than necessary. It is not paced by the general demands of filling an hour of television like most Netflix shows or all of the limited series produced by its peers on HBO or FX.

As a result, Maniac structurally better resembles literature and cinema than it does traditional television. Like a book or film, it is the overall experience that demands evaluation, not excerpts from the long-form text. It definitely runs longer and with more layers than a traditional three-act film, but like a movie, it is derived from a singular overriding story determined by its visual impression, as well as its need for a beginning, middle, and end.

To be sure, Maniac is not the first series to be told by a single director—others include Jean-Marc Vallée’s hand on Big Little Lies and Fukunaga’s vision for the first season of True Detective—however this is the first one where the director’s vision arguably competes with the showrunner’s dominion as author of the series. That is because alongside Sommerville, and unlike his work on True Detective, Fukunaga is essentially a co-showrunner in Maniac. Consequently, more than the aforementioned series, Maniac opens itself to a reading of the “auteur theory” for its director.

Maniac is as much informed by its director’s eye as it is by its writers’ words and actors’ performances. This is visible in the one-take shot of Stone kicking ass, and it is infused in the visual sensibilities of Fukunaga throughout the picture, be they intentional like Raising Arizona or subconscious like Dr. Strangelove. And again, an entire central set was constructed to optically echo one of the most famed sets in science fiction cinema.

further reading: Maniac Ending Explained

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For all of these reasons, Maniac truly resembles a longer, chaptered movie than a television series broken down by individual episodes and installments. It is certainly structured as long-form storytelling, but in such a way that is insular and cutoff. Rather than being plot or even character-driven, much of Maniac appears to be powered by the emotional epiphany of its characters: Owen, Annie, and GRTA, the depressed supercomputer. The enlightenment and catharsis they achieve by the film’s ending has a finality that doesn’t invite a follow-up like Stranger Things or a full-fledged second season like Big Little Lies, even as the latter was based on a then-standalone novel. It is the completion of a visual storyteller’s vision and several actors’ sophisticated presentation of their characters’ whole journey. In that way, it is their fingerprints that are the most visible.

Thus the prospect of a second season—especially without Fukunaga—appears genuinely foreboding. When the visual language becomes so pronounced that the removal of a director from the second season of a television series seems risky, then the difference between the director’s chosen medium (film) and the writer’s (television) has truly blurred. But like Owen and Annie driving off into the sunset, it is kind of lovely using that intentional muddle as the foundation of building something new.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.