Netflix miniseries Maniac, from Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), is an enticing prospect even before taking the stacked cast into account. Led by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, it also has Sally Field, Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina) supporting, with the likes of Gabriel Byrne and Hank Azaria regularly popping up.
Hill and Stone play two troubled strangers both drawn to the same pharmaceutical trial, with three pills designed to cure a person of their hang-ups that plague them in life. When the sentient supercomputer controlling the experiment goes off plan, the leads find themselves navigating different personalities through fantasy realities, repeatedly drawn to helping each other and encountering people from their lives recast as bit players in anthology-like tales representing aspects of their trauma. There’s a slight Sucker Punch vibe to the whole concept, albeit with a far less infantalised depiction of mental health.
Primarily a dark dramedy, Maniac has a retrofuturist setting with some subtle dystopic overtones. There’s an implication that this is roughly set in the present day, but with commonplace technology that harkens back to a more analogue age than our real-life digital era – TV adverts and an intro video for the drug trial resemble something filmed in the VHS era, while the design of the pastel pink supercomputer GRTA looks plausibly swiped from a Wes Anderson set. Elsewhere in the world-building, people fill longings for connection by hiring someone to play a longtime friend.
Hill, Stone and others get to stretch their muscles with multiple roles and scenarios while hooked to the machine, but the show’s most fun performance is a mainstay in the lab: Theroux’s Dr. Mantleray, a bundle of discomfort whose own problems have birthed the experiment. If Maniac’s more serious inclinations don’t quite move one in the way they should by its end, Theroux is at least the highlight of the series’ goofier side.