Netflix’s next major series – released Friday – is a dark comedy. Or is it a sci-fi? A drama? A psychological thriller? The first episode is of indeterminate genre, disorientating and somewhat inscrutable, and has no interest in explaining itself. It’s also brilliant.
I could just about make out our setting – a barely recognisable New York City – but a time period is anyone’s guess. The aesthetic suggests the 1980s, but the futuristic technology suggests closer to the 2080s. More likely, perhaps, is that we’re in the modern day, only an alternate, maldeveloped one. America seems to have yielded to an aggressive corporate culture than doesn’t invite you to buy products but demands it. Advertising is writ large yet feels retro, vast neon signs for toothbrushes stretching from one side of the Hudson river to the other. Robots mill about among pedestrians but with limited function, one existing solely to scoop dog poop from the sidewalk. Small cash transactions can be avoided if you agree to instead watch a few commercials on a portable device called an Ad Buddy (that one may sound familiar).
If the genre, tone and setting are confusing, our protagonists we can be a little more sure of at least. Jonah Hill is Owen Milgrim, the fifth son of wealthy New York industrialists and the black sheep of the family. More introverted than his show-off siblings, he struggles with depression and quite possibly schizophrenia. Emma Stone, meanwhile, plays Annie Landsberg, an erratic, short-tempered young woman with anxiety and obsessive tendencies.
Strangers to begin with, the pair couldn’t be more different, except for the fact that they both seem misplaced in their own lives. Their paths cross when they both sign up for the same medical trial, the kind of job that tends to attract the broke (like Annie) and the listless (like Owen).
Owen is convinced that Annie is a key player in a mysterious, pre-ordained “pattern” and thinks she will give him instructions to save the planet. Hopefully by now you’re getting an idea of what a peculiar and playful show this is, one that feels like it was dreamt up by Kurt Vonnegut (it is, in fact, based on a little-known Norwegian show of the same name).
With Stone already a bona fide star and Hill well on the way, they’re engaging leads and draw you in from the get-go. It’s Owen who gets the most screen time in this first episode and his dourness and deadpan delivery accentuate the absurdity of the dialogue. Why aren’t you in the family portrait, his sister-in-law-to-be (Girls‘ Jemima Kirke), asks him. To which he replies, blankly, that he will be added soon – the delay is only because “the artist just took a six-month sabbatical to Nepal to study the light”.
Directed by Cary Fukunaga, who was behind the first season of True Detective (ie the good season), Maniac is a daring commission from Netflix. The streaming service is known for the loose leash it allows its creatives, and here they’ve been allowed to run wild.
Though so many questions emerge about Maniac’s world in the pilot, its close places the action for the next few episodes within the confines of a laboratory. Owen and Annie will be subjected to a “new, radical kind of pharmaceutical treatment”, the show’s synopsis promises. “A sequence of pills its inventor claims can repair anything about the mind, be it mental illness or heartbreak. The three-day drug trial will, they’re assured, with no complications or side effects whatsoever, solve all of their problems, permanently.”
Maniac demands such patience from the viewer that this could all end in disaster if the plot doesn’t have a sufficient pay-off. But with bold direction and screenwriting, and the tantalising supporting cast of Sally Field, Julia Garner and Justin Theroux set to arrive later in the season, there is more than enough here to make you want to trust the creators, strap in, and go wherever this curious ride may take us.
Maniac season 1 streams on Netflix from Friday 21 September