'maniac' nails what it's like living with mental illness
The Netflix series stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as New Yorkers seeking a psychological cure-all.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. Michele K. Short / Netflix
Warning: this post contains spoilers for Maniac on Netflix.
This post originally appeared on VICE US
The best part of Netflix's new series, Maniac, isn’t Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in 1980s Long Island cosplay, or the show’s superb retro-futuristic imagining of New York. It’s not even those adorable pooper scooper robots that act like Roombas for dog shit—though honestly, the city should look into them. Aside from falling onto subway tracks or being crushed by a construction crane, stepping in poop is one of the biggest hazards of NYC habitation.
No, the best part of the 10-episode limited series written by Patrick Somerville ( The Leftovers) and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga ( True Detective) comes midway through the season, when Annie (Stone), Owen (Hill), and the other subjects of a mysterious pharmaceutical trial talk through their drug-fueled hallucinations, or “reflections” as they’re called in the show, with the scientist in charge of their study, Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux).
One by one, the subjects sit at a table with a dozen obtrusively close cameras trained on their faces. A wall of monitors behind them magnifies every expression and eye twitch while Dr. Mantleray quizzes his patients on their latest medically-induced drug trip.
He’s ostensibly debriefing them to verify data collected by a sophisticated supercomputer, the GRTA (known as “Gertie” colloquially), but his questions quickly start to resemble the gentle prompts a psychologist might use during traditional talk therapy. It’s the first time any of them start to demonstrate real awareness and understanding of their issues, and it’s a turning point in the series. (It’s also a moment of exceptional acting by Stone—watching her process Annie’s trauma, you can almost see the wheels turn in her brain. “Is this therapy now?” she snarks at one point. “I thought this was supposed to be better than that.”)
The drug trial in Maniac is like ayahuasca on steroids, mixed with LSD experiments from the 70s. It captures the extremes people are willing to go to exorcise their psychological demons, even if it means puking your brains out in the Brazilian rainforest or spending three days trapped in a lab that looks like the set of a Stanley Kubrick film.
The treatment Owen and Annie sign up for promises to fix its subjects’ brains with just three little pills—A, B, and C—administered one after another over the span of three days. The first forces you to relive your trauma; the second exposes your blind spots; and the third pill forces a confrontation. Each individual drug trip is analysed and manipulated by the GRTA, which functions as sort of an AI spirit guide.