Video streaming and the subsequent demand for perennial content is a mixed bag, as we’ve all seen by now. The existence of streaming platforms outside of the studio system has opened the door for original ideas, for talent that may not have otherwise been able to find itself an audience of any significance. And while another effect has been the creation of arguably too much content, more than any one person could ever hope to consume, some of us are trying our best to stay in touch with the general trends that have slowly been forming as a result of this splintering of pop culture.
Which brings us to ‘Maniac,’ a “limited series,” which nowadays translates to: too big for a movie and not big enough for an ongoing series. Keeping it to just 10 episodes is likely how Netflix was able to snag some A-minus-listers like Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, both perhaps past their peak but undeniably talented actors in their own right. Its creators, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Patrick Somerville, are essentially nobodies so we won’t spend much time on them. Instead, let’s jump right to the meat. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers but they might slip in anyway. You’ve been warned.
I find no issue with the visuals, set design, etc. In fact, on occasion the cinematography is pretty compelling, despite borrowing much of its overall vibe from other dystopian staples like ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘1984,’ ‘Solaris’ (the Tarkovsky original), ‘Brazil,’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ Sure, the CGI elements are the embodiment of cutting corners, and the overall visual style fails to make an impression. The bigger problems rest with the storytelling, tone, dialogue, and a several other core aspects of visual entertainment we won’t have time to get into. So, in no particular order …
The first episode and much of the second portray a deadly serious world in which our lead characters are chronically unhappy. Then we very quickly get a supporting cast of zany characters who look like cartoons and have names straight out of a Pynchon novel, or maybe a Tim Burton movie. Then there’s the awkward, disjointed humor that immediately butts heads with the show’s apparent attempt to say something vague about therapy, self-care, and mental health. There are people who can pull off rapid tonal shifts (James Gunn is a good working example), and then there are some who only succeed in confusing the audience and muddling the message.
If you don’t already know, ‘Maniac’ makes use of mini-stories inside the minds of our leads. Each one plays on popular movie tropes, and in each one, Stone and Hill put on terrible accents and the overall effect is of watching a very expensive game of dress-up. I’ve watched enough Movie Accent Expert to know that an actor needs time to really nail an accent. From what I’ve heard about how Netflix tends to rush productions in hopes of keeping costs shoestring-low, and from the sound of the accents themselves, they didn’t have time. Period. Additionally, each of the tangents could have been fun explorations of genre films. An example of this being done well is that one Rick and Morty episode, “The Ricklantis Mixup.” The R + M team knows how to play on cliches in a way that’s entertaining and clever, and that even adds something new to the format. In ‘Maniac,’ every tangent feels like a slog, one that does little to contribute to the bigger picture of the series. They also happen to be sprinkled with cringey lines like, “Annie, I’m a hawk!” and “I’m so clean you could use my piss as detergent.” ‘Nough said.
My undying belief is that ‘Maniac’ was originally written as a screenplay, likely 2 hours long. But no one would buy it. The studios are more interested in making the 12th reboot of the Spider-Man franchise in as many years. So they turned to Netflix, who’ll make almost anything. Problem was, Netflix is iffy on making standalone movies (cough cough, the ‘Bright’ disaster). But boy oh boy, they like making shows. Netflix shows win Emmys, or they are quickly forgotten and fail to stain the service’s pristine reputation.
The result is a show called ‘Maniac,’ a show that feels like it’s been stretched thinner than translucent Silly Putty. There is a chronic feeling of having my time wasted, episode by episode. Netflix knows that you will watch the whole thing to see if it ever has anything to say, to see what should have just been the third act of a 2-hour movie. And after spending roughly 5 ½ hours to get through it, the end *feels* like an ending simply because of how much time you’ve sunk into it, regardless of what the story and the characters actually *do* in the final episode.
‘Maniac’ is only interesting as a signpost of where entertainment is today. The most important goal is to just make something, and put it up where people will see it. The Beast needs to be fed. It doesn’t matter that a year from now we won’t remember this show or any number of shows just like it. It only matters that we had something to watch on an anonymous weekend when we had nothing else to do and didn’t want to feel bored and alone. The fact that ‘Maniac’ tries to discuss that very boredom and loneliness is ultimately irrelevant, painted over by the episodes of ‘The Office’ that we rewatched immediately afterward and the resulting numbing effect of familiar content.