Zach Hohenstein, E23 Reporter

What would we do to escape our current lives?

This is the question that Netflix’s new show “Maniac” asks the audience. Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of all ten episodes, emphasizes this notion through excellent cinematography and production design that brings out the underlying dull of our reality. Arguably even more important than that would be the incredible performances by the two leads, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone. With the help of superior acting from Hill and Stone, as well as confident directing from Fukunaga, “Maniac” is a mind-bending story that delivers the visual and psychological elements to provide a unique viewing experience for audiences who are craving material that is perhaps more challenging than the regular television drama.

The basic premise of the show is that there is a pharmaceutical drug trial that can rid a person of all of their pain. Hill plays Owen Milgrim, a schizophrenic son in a wealthy New York family, who is being pressured into defending his brother in an upcoming court appearance case involving an old sexual assault allegation. His muted performance expertly navigates his complex mental condition and the constant and subtle stress he endures because of it. Stone portrays Annie Landsberg, a drug-addict who is struggling to get over the guilt of family issues in her past. The performance Stone delivers in the first two episodes is skillfully permeated with both profound mannerisms and genuinely raw emotion that expertly depicts the pain her character is enduring.

The two protagonists are brought together in the trial through separate chains of events. The first episode, “The Chosen One!”, is focused on Owen while “Windmills”, the second episode of the miniseries, is concentrated on Annie.

The first two episodes of “Maniac” explore themes of fantasy. What does that word mean to most people in their day-to-day lives? It represents a life that is better than the ones we are all living in. Fukunaga places small references to this theme throughout. After an unsuccessful pitch to a woman to run away with him, he remarks, “It’s a good fantasy.” Annie makes a promise to herself to read “Don Quixote”, a classic novel about a poor farmer who decides to try to live the life of a knight, disregarding the reality he lives in for a false one of vanquishing giants and winning the hearts of fair maidens. The constant presence of fighting what is real make “Maniac” a stunning depiction of what it means to be a human being experiencing pain and suffering as well as the more desirable emotions of joy and bliss. Fukunaga leaves us eager to continue on the psychological journey that the two protagonists have embarked on after the first two episodes.

The visuals of the miniseries are oddly compelling. Whether it be the introduction of “The Chosen One!”, which depicts how the entire universe is the spawn of an amoeba dividing, or the peculiar animatronic koala that plays chess and speaks with a character in a park, “The Maniac” draws the audience in with a production design brimming with interesting imagery. When things start to get a little too weird visually and narratively in movies and shows, it can get a little convoluted. However, in “Maniac” it all seems cohesive within Fukunaga’s unique vision.

In a television landscape where excellent dramas can be found on multiple platforms, “Maniac” stands out because of how it speaks to who we are psychologically. The themes, questions and plot points explored are executed flawlessly by both those in front of and behind the camera in the first two episodes. The result is a thought-provoking but still accessible miniseries that subverts the standard format for what a television show should be in an exquisite fashion.

Official Rating: 4.5/5

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