Crossing the Stream: Part 64 - "Maniac" Eps 1-10

I honestly can't tell if the last week went by in slow-motion, or in fast-forward. I've been working a lot of extra hours, and now that the fall season is in full swing, I'm leaving home and returning home in the dark. And I'm watching a lot of horror movies and shows. It's been kind of a rotten week of my own devising. Nice going, Kyle.

My weight issue hasn't gotten worse, but it hasn't gotten better. I shot back up five pounds or so and sat there for the better part of the week, but I've managed to recover. As of today, I'm back to 45 pounds lost. I'm not sure what caused this sudden fight for the comfy plateau, but no less than three people independently suggested that age-old piece of weight loss advice that everyone remembers to tell you: muscle weighs more than fat! Yeah, okay. Let's say I gained five pounds of muscle in the last five days from a rudimentary rotation of resistance machines. I still have about fifty pounds of fat on top of that, so it'd be real cool if that could keep going away.

It's been a rather light week in terms of my now alarmingly regular existential funks I've been slipping into every few weeks. My best explanation for that whole thing is that I might just be really tired from ten-hour work days, regular exercise, reduced sugar intake, and staying up late trying to make sure something new hits this blog every day if I can. It's possible I'm putting too much pressure on myself all at once. I know, how about we add another absurd obligation?!

I'm starting a new writing project for National Novel Writing Month, and I'm not sure what the Media Sandwich slate is going to look like for November. I did NaNoWriMo back in 2013 and it was such a valuable experience for me. In the same way that Crossing the Stream helped me go to the gym as a regular habit, NaNoWriMo taught me to write at least a thousand words a day on general principle, even if it comes out as garbage and no one reads it. So, it's time for another refresher, because I've gotten quite complacent since becoming my only editor. I'm going to owe myself 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days, and the scariest part of that idea is the "fiction" part. I'm still not convinced that I have any fiction writing ability at all, so if by the end of November I never talk of this novel'll know how well it turned out.

On that note of pessimism and uncertainty, how about we get right to the television review? I have so much to say about our show this week, and there are some spoilers ahead.

"Maniac," Episodes 1-10

I'm given to understand this is a limited series, so there is no "season" of television here. This is the full story, and it plays like if Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson made a ten-hour movie together. That's equal parts a compliment and a reproach. Cary Fukunaga is an amazing director for both Kubrickian shot composition and very introverted, complex performances from actors. But I'm not sure if the obscene levels of loving production design and technical mastery can save "Maniac" from being a too-precious Philip K. Dick story about how you really need therapy to go with your Zoloft.

Without going too far into it, the plot concerns miserable schizophrenic Owen and guilt-ridden Annie, who both join a mysterious drug trial under odd circumstances and begin to connect with each other during the experiment. A combination of pills and weird microwave technology creates a dream...or simulation...or hallucination...or something...that first lets you experience your greatest trauma with perfect clarity, then takes you into an alternate reality that helps you confront the psychological fallout from that trauma. Along the way, the different realities take the form of a 1940s supernatural caper, 1980s sitcom (kind of), elf-centric fantasy adventure, and outlandish geopolitical spy thriller. Throughout the plot, we also get our little insights into the near-future (or possibly alternate present?) where this is possible, without having them too fully explained. The first few episodes feature the concept of Ad-Buddies heavily, wherein little expenses like a cheap meal or subway fare can be paid for by enduring advertisements, much like a free-to-play video game on your smartphone. Only they send a flesh-and-blood person, likely a gig-economy worker akin to your Uber driver, to read ads out loud to you. Bizarre. Sure. A clever bit of social commentary? Somewhat. But it's not nearly worth the amount of time spent on it.

Chief among the triumphs of this project are those visuals. How to describe the breathtaking throwback aesthetic of "Maniac" to someone who hasn't watched? Is "twee ironic futurism" a term? It is now. The mid-1990s techie motif, with a chunky beige plastic artificiality and lack of warmth or elegance, is deployed by Fukunaga as some kind of metaphor or subconscious hearkening back to a specific generation's formative years at the birth of the Internet (Fukunaga was 18 in 1995, if that's any indication). It's a hell of a look. That's one thing I'll sing praises to the rooftops on this show, there is a definite purpose to this specific aesthetic, and it rings true even if the weird outdated futurism isn't too logical. Don't worry about logic with "Maniac," it's not that kind of show. It's a show more concerned with how this production design makes you feel, what charge of memory or confusion it spurs.

Once we move into the little fantasy universes, Netflix's money is on full display, and Fukunaga is noticeably having fun dipping his toes in such vastly different genres. I can't quite articulate why, but this series reminds me of Ready Player One in one very specific way, in that it demonstrates a certain literacy in the different films and television it mimics in the simulation sequences, but never really uses it for any purpose. It's the same way I feel about "Family Guy" and the rest of Seth MacFarlane's work at this point, like, "Hey, you've certainly seen a lot of movies and television in the last thirty years. And you have a great group of people doing an amazing job of recreating and aping those things for your amusement. Any, uh, real reason why?" It could be using these alternate genres, done up to Hollywood level verisimilitude, to probe the concept of unstable reality or to take an off-beat lens to mental illness, but it really doesn't.

Anchoring the appropriately scatterbrained project are Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as Owen and Annie. Man, remember when these two were making tiramisu in Home Ec class in Superbad? That feels so very long ago. No one could have predicted they'd both be Oscar-nominated and working on some kooky, expensive-ass passion projects like this one. Hill made his bones giving big outlandish performances in broad comedy, and seeing him here haggard, depleted, helps tell a visual story of where Owen is moment-by-moment, which is imperative when your character is largely living in slow motion inside his own head. It's a great understated showcase for a guy who would like everyone to move past the "funny fat guy says the F word, falls down goes boom" part of his career.

 She can also just give big emotional monologues directly to camera for the rest of her career, honestly. Between her biggest scene in La La Land and some of the big cascading emotions she's showing off here, it has become evident what command she has of her face and voice. Stone is also such a natural to comedy for the same reason. She can take even the most artificially manipulated writing, the most preposterous of comedic situations, and lend it a naturalistic reaction and tone. I've had a real comedy crush on Stone since those hallowed Apatow days, or even in Easy A, a teen movie best described as "Emma Stone is charming AF, y'all, don't even worry about it." Here, the camera catches some big sitcom style reaction beats of hers that sell some of the wackier material like the mysterious dancer-poacher-robber family in "Furs By Sebastian," or her encounters with the Ad Buddies.

And when the two of them are clearly having fun or at least doing something worthy of their talents in "Maniac," the show really works. The extended alternate reality that takes place in 1980-something Long Island, with Jonah Hill's mullet and Emma Stone's big poofy bouffant, is unexpectedly really sweet and engaging even while knowing it's all a fake construct for their real characters. The final fantasy construct, set inside an alien invasion at the UN, is gleefully wacky with Hill doing some kind of Icelandic Rick Moranis thing while Stone indulges in the quippy unstoppable badass superspy fight choreography. Honestly, if this show could have figured out a way to be an alternate-reality-of-the-week, it could have worked. But it's too in love with the primary world to abandon it for too long. Similar premises, like "Dollhouse" for one, fall into the same trap.

At times, "Maniac" is a hard show to watch mostly due to its structure. The ten-episode arc doesn't really feel natural, the episode length--arbitrarily ranging from 22 minutes to 45 minutes--alternate between being too short for a sci-fi metaphysical drama and too long for an off-kilter dark comedy. We get full episodes within the dream/simulation, and full episodes out in the drug trial world dealing with the weirdo scientists running the experiment, and all of their interpersonal stuff. Instead of cross-cutting Owen and Annie's origins together into a perfectly readable pilot, they each get an introductory episode. I understand that submerges a viewer more into the new realities and helps us view things from an empathetic point of view with whichever character is our surrogate, but it also pads out the series in the wrong kind of way. And the climax of the series in Episode 9, which at some point morphs into a more gonzo heist-within-a-heist-within-a-dream Inception riff, is loaded with unearned "a-ha!" moments, a sense of emotional satisfaction and payoff for setups that really never happened in the early episodes.

Just when I think I have a grasp on what this show is going for, it takes a hard left turn toward something else. That's both refreshing and also a little bit tedious, as the series spends half its episodes trying to establish the credibility of its strange heightened reality, and the other half farting around in weird genre cosplay fun. There's no room for it to just settle into whatever it might be trying to convey. By episodes eight and nine, I had no clue where it was heading. That's good. That means this was made with care and anticipates you as a viewer more than you can anticipate it as entertainment. But at the same time, if I'm eighty percent done with this show and I feel no different about it from where I was after two episodes...that's also kind of a problem. Part of this is that it's a Netflix Original, and so it's been edited and polished down to be watched at a breakneck pace. I'm sure a viewing of "Maniac" in one sedentary sitting would make it a lot better, but it would also be ten exhausting hours, and it really probably shouldn't be more than four.

I'm really at odds with the scientist characters and their plot. While Justin Theroux is channeling the comedic earnestness of John Lithgow's lighter work, and Sally Field is an absolute delight every moment she is on screen, there's something half-baked about it all. Theroux is the emotionally askew creator of the experimental drug, an attempt to combat trauma technologically rather than through therapy. Field is his mother, a pop psychology celebrity, so he has a grudge against therapy. So, of course, the whole lab setting is its own meta-version of the drug trial itself in structure, with our doctor and his former flame taking Owen and Annie's positions as the subjects. You half-expect the entire Owen and Annie A-plot to end up being an artificial fantasy meant to help Dr. Mantleray confront his relationship with his mother. Another show, a more boring show, a show with a clearer idea of what show it is, might have done just that. Instead, this show mostly uses the Mantleray team much the same way Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reminded us that the weird people in white coats providing all the science magic for our protagonists are people as well. It's also a troublesome aspect of the show because it's the section that is most obviously weird for the sake of weird. A confrontation with the lab's big boss is a feverish conversation with a static-filled television set held by an attendant. Mantleray thanks Azumi several times for "braving the outside world" in order to bring him back to the project. The talking emoji-faced supercomputer cries actual tears and declares that it has "all the feels," yeah, okay sure sure. Fine. I get it. It feels like an anime rendered in live action, and it feels that way on purpose. It's all very strategically random.

I don't know. I feel like maybe I'm being too hard on "Maniac." You could make a very easy argument that I'm not getting it or I'm just trying too hard to deconstruct it and understand its moving parts rather than experiencing it. That's fine. I can say without any reservation that it's worth a watch if you have a big appreciation for the inventive visual flair, or if you're just a really big fan of some of the main cast members. They are all doing fabulous work. It's a very pretty, well constructed piece of entertainment, but it failed to click with me and frequently brought out my cynical reflex to question the motives (or lack thereof) behind it. Stephen King referred to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining by calling it "a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine in it," and that's the feels I have for "Maniac."

Notes & Quotes:

● "You'll be born again...but not as a baby!"

● Owen's psychosis is right about one thing: patterns. Somerville wrote a lot a cyclical phrases and common retorts across several different realities, the way a computer might reuse some constructs out of efficiency. Some of those patterns:
"Do I really have a choice?"
All security guards, Fish and Wildlife officers, and various uniformed folks being compared to police: "There's not much of a difference, authority-wise."
"My mind is playing tricks on me" appears both as dialogue and in diegetic music.
Keypads with access codes like "1-2-3-4" and "5-6-7-8"

● Can we acknowledge Justin Theroux's incredibly diverse career as the world's handsomest character actor? He's been in everything for about twenty years.

● "For someone who is supposed to love unconditionally, family sure has a lot of conditions."

● Some science talk: a "globular cluster" is a term usually used to describe a group of stars that are bound to each other via gravity. Meanwhile, the concept of "arborization" of the human brain is mentioned in passing, and involves a branching, tree-like structure of how neurons connect to each other (Mantleray states that GRTA is evolving into an arborized structure as well).

● "You are very good at gun!"

Rating: C+

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