This Maniac review contains spoilers.
Maniac Episode 1
Oftentimes the experience of watching a new Netflix property with a critical eye means assessing what this means for Netflix rather than whether the show works on its own merits.
Netflix has become such a cultural and entertainment behemoth that it’s hard not to view what it produces through a socioeconomic prism rather than a creative one.
Take Maniac for example. The first episode of the ambitious Jonah Hill and Emma Stone reunion project is by any definition bold television. It’s certainly not perfect and some may not find it enjoyable even but few could argue that it isn’t a legitimately creative television endeavor. Still, the most surprising moment of “The Chosen One!” may be some housekeeping at episode’s end.
Three and a half minutes. That’s how long the ending credits run on this thing. I’ve been watching original Netflix TV shows ever since House of Cards debuted back in 2013 (any Lilyhammer fans out there?). This represents the first time I’ve seen the credits of a show extend past three minutes…hell, it’s the first time I’ve seen ending credits extend past two minutes.
I knew Maniac was a big project for Netflix. Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are legitimate movie stars. Director Cary Fukunaga is arguably one of the five or so most sought after directors in the world right now. His work on True Detective Season 1 was superb and led to new opportunities like acclaimed 2015 war movie Beasts of No Nation and next year’s still untitled 25th James Bond film. Fukunaga, Hill, Stone, and so many other creative folks involved in this endeavor could have chosen virtually anything they wanted to do. The fact that they chose this must mean that they knew Netflix would spare no expense. Netflix would make sure each and every one of Maniac’s 10 episodes would reach that mythical “film quality” that television so often strives for, jealous little brother that it can sometimes be. Based on those three and a half minutes of credits alone, it’s clear that Netflix obliged.
So what do those three and a half minutes of credits bring to Maniac Episode 1, “The Chosen One!”? More than enough to create something compelling. The story that “The Chosen One!” tells is familiar enough. Owen Milgrim (Hill) is a dissatisfied office drone from a rich family living in a small New York apartment. Owen has experienced problems with schizophrenia in the past, hallucinating things like popcorn kernels popping by themselves on lukewarm streets and his older brother delivering him cosmically ordained missions to save the world.
Meanwhile Annie Landsberg (Stone) is a struggling actress who can only get work posing in photoshoots for the multitude of ads scattered across this futuristic-ish version of the city. Both Owen and Annie are experiencing hard times, with Owen losing his job and Annie seemingly not having one in the first place. The two decide to apply for a drug trial with Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. Also Owen thinks he might be the chosen one to save the world because his fake brother told him so and that Annie is his new secret agent “handler.”
OK, ultimately the thrust of that plot doesn’t sound very “conventional” on its face but the elements driving our lead characters are as archetypical as it comes. Episode 1 finds these two people very squarely in the first part of Dan Harmon’s storytelling circle: two characters in a zone of comfort…but they want something and enter into an unfamiliar situation. It’s a wise move for Maniac to follow the storytelling basics here in its first episode because the real star of the show so far is its aesthetic.
The world of Maniac is like our world…just different. Its version of New York is like if 1984 Ghostbusters-era New York immediately jumped to 2025. There are still New York Post newspaper stands and those paper Greek coffee cups but they exist alongside janky little street cleaning robots and a new, more hardcore Statue of Liberty. Technology is clearly advanced to our current world’s standards or maybe even a touch beyond – but computers still have a Matrix-esque greenish tint on their displays and all TV’s seem analog based.
All of the various technological contradictions of this world immediately open up a host of new possibilities of storytelling in the viewer’s mind so that the show doesn’t have to become too expository. We can make certain conclusions about this environment based on the multitude of advertisements and Owne’s modest digs that income inequality may be even more extreme in this version of New York. If nothing else, the pervasiveness of all of these ads and all of this artificiality present an interesting theme that could become useful in future episodes. Yes, Owen is undoubtedly crazy but how could he not be? How could one get a handle on what the real world even is if everything is an ad?
Now, just because Maniac don’ts have to become too expository doesn’t mean that it doesn’t become too expository. The extended voiceover sequence that begins the episode tips the show’s hand much too far. The voiceover tracks the beginning of the universe from the Big Bang to photosynthesizing amoebas to these strange human creatures and how we’re all looking for “infinite truth of our connections.” For starters, the viewer needs to be in charge of learning that this story is becoming one of looking to connect in a world of artificiality. That’s what the ads on the Brooklyn bridge are there for. Not only that but Maniac was going to draw some comparisons to the works of Charlie Kaufman to begin with, most specifically that of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It only hurts its case that it borrows starting the show at the start of the universe from another Kaufman film in Adaptation.
“The Chosen One!” also suffers a little bit from clearly being only part of a whole. This is a good introduction to the world and to the characters but the episode’s end is anticlimactic with the pharmaceutical trial having not even started yet. While Netflix has branded this a “limited series,” one episode in it does feel like we’ve just seen one-tenth of a movie rather than an episode of television.
Ultimately, however, this is still an appealing one-tenth of a movie. From Owen’s desire to be a hero, the introduction of an intriguing mythology (“The pattern is the pattern”), and the look of a very familiar, yet very strange New York, Maniac Episode 1 is intriguing enough to match its three and a half-minute end credits scale.