“It begins like this. Two billion years ago, an amoeba … Wait. Let’s back up a sec. I’ve missed too many connections.”
That’s the voice of Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux, whom we don’t get to meet in this first episode) whose grand theory of the universe —purpley, majestic, extremely sexualized (hello, little sperm!) — offers the perfect entry point for a show that is seemingly going to try to be about everything, and exist in every genre. It’s dystopian, it’s comedic, it’s campy. Maniac is about the American mental health crisis, the disintegration of the family, the intrusive role of advertising in everyday life. There’s a legal drama lurking underneath a medical experimentation narrative that’s paired with a love triangle and a potential romance. It’s also blisteringly, heart-twistingly, uncomfortably, beautifully sad. And really, really bonkers.
This is 2018 TV being the most 2018 TV it can be, throwing everything against the wall and crossing its fingers. And for now, at least, it all sticks.
The entirety of this premiere feels a bit like a 3-D adventure tour at Disney World, where so many tiny details are whizzing past your face that you want to duck and cover, but also don’t want to miss anything. A robot that cleans up dog shit! Dr. Fujita’s (Sonoya Mizuno) hyperchic glasses and bangs combo! The Statue of Liberty Extra! So first, here are the basics.
Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill, who plays the role with such a dedication to melancholy lifelessness that I’m slightly worried about his personal mental health) is one of the five Milgrim sons, a family so polished and wealthy that they spend their evenings together putting on a capella performances in their architectural pastiche vomit of a home. The odd man out, Owen is quiet and measured, awkward with virtually all humans, a sensitive soul who rescued an injured hawk from the park at 8 years old and nursed it back to health. Unlike his brothers, he won’t take a job with Milgrim Industries. But he’s just gone on “permanent furlough” from his job, and his bank account is practically negative. His Roosevelt Island (once, if you recall, the site of New York City’s asylums for the criminally insane) studio apartment brings new meaning to the phrase “small space living”; the shower is also the foyer. His rent “comprises 87.2 percent” of his monthly income.
Owen is especially uncomfortable among his own family: his four brash brothers who were probably born with lacrosse sticks in their hands, his powerful but kindhearted father (Gabriel Byrne), and his mother, who has no qualifying features aside from an unidentifiable accent and insistence that Owen loves Balderdash. When they gather for a family dinner, Owen hides out among his nieces and nephews, preferring the company of a dollhouse to his siblings. I almost expected to see him at the kids’ table, feet firmly planted on the floor next to the kids’ swinging legs. He’s even been left out of the family portrait — a bizarre, badly done cross between a Hockney and a Hopper. A tiny, Wes Anderson–esque framed painting of Owen sits next to it, Maniac’s first big jab of darkly hilarious camp.
All of which would be enough to paint Owen as a sad sack, without the added burden of a serious mental health crisis. As Owen explains in the testimony he’s practicing for his brother Jed’s trial (who is accused of an unknown crime for which Owen is his alibi), he suffered a complete psychotic break ten years ago, a break that led to hospitalization, medication, and then, he says, remission. But as Owen watches, the conference room table begins to shake, a glass of water rattling in what might be a strange homage to Jurassic Park, it becomes clear that reality is a slippery concept for Owen.
It’s that same brother Jed who visits him as an apparition — occasionally donning absurdly unconvincing “disguises” like glasses or a pale mustache — and reminds Owen of his destiny: to save the world. The pattern, Jed tells him, is the pattern. A female agent will reach out and make contact.
Owen, it turns out, has been flicking doses of his antipsychotics into the sad, lonely houseplant in his apartment, so rewatching old tapes of a therapist repeating lines intended to remind Owen that he is an unlikely hero isn’t enough to snap him out of his schizophrenic break. But since we’re living in an age where TV has to mess with you to prove its inherent worth, there are some lingering questions around whether what we see as Owen’s psychosis could possibly be real.
As inward and still as Owen is — Hill’s performance is a physical exercise in restraint — the world around him buzzes and pulses even more loudly than our own. It’s hard to pin down an exact time frame since Maniac so doggedly resists chronology, but it seems like it’s set sometime in an alternate late 1980s, where most of the digital intrusions we tolerate as a necessary evils are instead analog. A central “Database of Desires” keeps track of what everyone buys and consumes. A service called AdBuddy allows the down and out to pay for (almost) anything by offering their attention to a dogged employee who reads out advertising shills from little slips of paper; they’re like your web browser’s cookies come to life, following you on the subway instead of on your screen. The buildings are almost Brutalist in their reliance on cement, the logos blocky, like something on MTV in 1987. Maniac’s own logo is a silly but eerie ripoff of IBM’s.
Maniac is essentially the late 1980s as sci-fi writers imagined it from the 1950s. It’s a New York that is more Blade Runner than the real thing, all concrete and glowing neon, with flashing signs covering every open space, including the bridge to Roosevelt Island, lit up with ads for Icelandic fish. Another sign announces the island as “Sugar City” — an obvious nod to American indulgence. The signs blink on and off outside Owen’s window, interrupting even his moments alone. There’s even a slightly altered New York City subway map up behind Owen’s head on the train, as if Maniac’s version of history diverted from ours quite long ago.
Maniac’s manic setting poses an interesting question: Would we deal as well with the barrage of advertising that comes our way if it were riding beside us on the subway instead of flickering past us on our smartphones? Fellow riders seem to tune out the AdBuddy employee, but his message clearly strikes a chord with Owen. Desperate enough for a job and human companionship that he considers volunteering as a faux husband for grieving widows (a real industry in Japan, BTW), Owen agrees — after their menacingly insistent and intrusive overtures — to volunteer as a test subject for Neberdine Biotech, a pharmaceuticals giant that is testing a drug that seeks to “eradicate all unnecessary forms of human pain.”
Medical experimentation is a genre at least as old as Frankenstein, itself a product of the Age of Enlightenment and a burgeoning fascination with slicing into the human body to figure out how it works — perhaps killing a few unlucky volunteers along the way. In the late 19th century the publication of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde roused interest in the question of whether we can control our impulses to transform ourselves. Then science fiction picked up the device as an entry point to the world of superheroes. Now, the interest lies in the psychological realm. In the past few years alone, Westworld, Stranger Things, and Orphan Black have all asked the same question as Maniac: Do the benefits of psychological medical experimentation outweigh the risks?
Until this point, Maniac is a sad, if a bit wonky, drama. But once Owen enters the rainbow-plastered cement headquarters of Neberdine, this show turns into a trip. Its outsize fascination with Japanese rituals is in turn hilarious and borderline offensive, but with a knowing wink. (If subjects are released from the study due to failure to comply, they’ll have to handle a lifetime of “shame and humiliation,” intones the doctors’ assistant.) Drs. Muramoto and Fujita ham up their Japanese-ness, bowing to the pink-lit room full of computer servers before heading into the subjects’ common room to offer some opening thoughts, like “You don’t fuck this up. I won’t fuck this up.” The tech itself is simultaneously ancient and unknown, like something kids might come up with if asked to design the products of the future out of cardboard and some aluminum foil.
It’s at Neberdine that Owen finally meets Annie (Emma Stone), whom he believes to be the female handler sent to pass on his instructions and whose face he’s seen (or has he?) in an ad for golfing at Hilton Head and on the brochure for rental husbands. Annie, just as down and out as Owen, but gruff where he is soft and fond of setting her jaw firmly at people, perhaps isn’t in the experiment under the most honest of circumstances — we see her screaming that she belongs in the study and then suddenly she holds a lanyard like Owen’s. He pesters her to the point where she grabs his arm and whispers that yes, she is his handler, and he is going to blow her cover.
With Maniac, it’s entirely possible that she’s his handler, a perfect stranger, or just another part of the experiment.
The study is about to begin. And that’s when shit will get really weird.
• What were the “old problems” the Neberdine trial had? This experiment appears to be operating verrrry loosely under the strictures of the FDA.
• The last question during Owen’s “intake” at Neberdine isn’t a question at all. The examiner simply stares at him, until he finally cracks and asks what’s going on. “Your defense mechanisms are fungible,” she responds, as if the point were to break into his brain Inception-style. Or perhaps they’re just looking for people who question the system.
• When Annie roots through the boxes outside of Milgrim Industries she grabs the copy of Don Quixote — a wild, hallucinatory quest of a novel—that’s sticking out. Wink wink.
• There’s also a Rubik’s Cube in the boxes. Is it the same Cube we see Owen fidgeting with under the table while he practices his testimony? Does this mean we’re in some sort of Westworld-esque alternative timeline scenario?
• The book Owen is reading when Neberdine calls him at home is called No Fix Just Bliss, and that’s Sally Field on the cover. The author’s last name is Mantleray, just like Justin Theroux’s character. My brain may be a wild world, but I desperately want them to be married, and not mother and son as I predict they’ll be.
• Even toilet paper is ad space in Maniac’s New York.
• Owen does not want to play Balderdash. Not at all.