I have to confess that doing these Netflix reviews are a lot harder than I anticipated, particularly for any series with more than one season. How do I talk about anything in season two of The Good Place without spoiling the big reveal at the end of the first season? I can’t talk about season two or three of Stranger Things, nor can I even talk about season one because most of the things I want to gush and rant about are also too spoilery. Don’t even get me started on Dark. (Seriously, don’t, unless you want me to spoil every episode for you. I love that show, so, so much.)
But at least with Maniac, I can feel secure offering a spoiler-free review. It’s a limited series, so there’s no pesky second season to deal with, and the way the show was made, I can talk about their “formula” without actually spoiling the episodes themselves. It’s win-win for you and me.
Based on the trailers, I expected Maniac to be grim sci-fi about a drug lab harming patients by tinkering with their brains. But it’s not very long into the series before it becomes clear there’s going to be a lot of humor of both the dry and wacky varieties. There’s also occasionally some creepy humor too, the sort where I laughed, and then felt bad for laughing. Oh, but the part about scientists tinkering with their patients’ brains is accurate.
The story centers around Owen and Annie. Owen is a schizophrenic who sees a “missing brother” named Grimmson, and this brother constructs elaborate plots that he wants Owen to get involved with. Owen knows he’s not well, but he isn’t taking his medication. He’s on the verge of cracking up and either harming himself or someone close to him, so a new drug trial comes at just the right time for him.
Meanwhile, Annie is a depressed addict who has illegally obtained a new mind bending drug and used her last dose. We the viewers don’t get to see what the pills do at first, but for Annie, running out of the A pill is so bad that she desperately concocts a plot to get into the drug’s final trial phase so she can steal more.
In the drug lab’s lobby, Grimmson points out Annie to Owen, telling him that she is his handler, and together they will save the world. Annie, scared of being discovered and ejected from the drug trial before she can find her next bottle of A, initially agrees that she is Owen’s handler and advises him to stay calm or he’ll blow their cover.
Through Annie, the effects of A are finally shown, as it provides a neural path directly to one’s most painful or traumatic memories. Annie is addicted to returning to this one point in her life because she’s unable to let go of her little sister years after her death.
The lead scientist recognizes Annie’s addiction, but a random quirk of fate saves her from being booted from participating in the B and C pill phases.
It’s during the B phase that things get weirder, with each episode diving into the fantasies of Owen and Annie. These scenarios are constructed by the lab’s AI computer G.R.T.A., who is referred to by several scientists as Gertie. Gertie is responsible for linking Owen and Annie’s minds, allowing them to share these fantasies to the bewilderment of the scientists.
Of the two main characters, I liked Annie a bit more than Owen. They’re both rough around the edges and hard to identify with at first, but Owen hates himself so much that even late into the series, he is still unable to make any progress. On the other hand Annie comes through these shared fantasies in both the B and C phases with a better understanding of why she’s been so hostile to everyone in her life. She heals, and while she’s still an asshole, she becomes a nicer asshole than the one who entered the trial.
As for the rest of the patients and scientists, I loved them all, and my only regret about this series is that I would have loved to get the chance to also see their mental movies. One of the scientists does use a VR sex simulator, granting a view into his private life, but with most everyone else, they’re taking a back seat to Owen and Annie. It’s not a problem, certainly. I’m just saying that I would have loved more episodes granting views into the other patients and the lab workers.
I haven’t even covered the world lore created by the writers, and I should. The time period seems to be around the eighties, but there are robots and advanced computers capable of virtual reality. Beyond that, there are services that are both intriguing and horrifying. Take for instance Ad-Buddy. If you’re low on cash, you can get Ad-Buddy to pay for what you need, in exchange for having a person follow you around reading advertisements to you until you’ve paid off your current debt. Then there’s Friend Proxy, which lets you hire someone to pretend to be a friend you already know so you don’t feel guilty for losing contact with your real friend. Like I said, intriguing AND horrifying. There’s a couple other short glimpses into this world, but I’ll leave those buried for you to discover for yourselves.
All in all, I had a good time with Maniac. It does have a rough start, but once you get past that, it’s an amazing story and well worth a dive or a binge depending on how you prefer to consume Netflix content. I give it 4 stars and a hearty recommendation for anyone who likes their sci-fi with a side order of humor.