I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write about Maniac, Netflix’s new black comedy which was created by Patrick Somerville and Cary Joji Fukunaga and stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, but I decided to wait until I’d watched the whole thing before making a decision. During the first few episodes, I thought I wouldn’t, because it reminded me of Legion and other surreal, but aimless, shows that I’ve been burned by in the past. Professional reviewers were even comparing Maniac to those shows. But as the season continued, Maniac became something else.
Maniac is a surrealistic, quirky, scifi black comedy that can get very dark and can go off on tangents that don’t make sense at first. It’s also, at least for now, a limited series, which means it’s written as a self-contained story. And what Maniac is, at its heart, is a lovely, optimistic, long form, indie romantic comedy, with a beginning, middle and end. Both indie films and works of surrealism have difficulty coming to a satisfying conclusion (and sometimes even commercial works do, looking at you, Castle Rock S1!), so the ending of Maniac is a major accomplishment, in my book.
I kind of fell in love with this show, and it appears that I’m going to have writer’s block until I write about it. There are 3 other partial recaps in my drafts folder that are going nowhere right now, so let’s give Maniac a try, shall we?
Like most Netflix shows, and many other shows as well, the first three episodes serve as an extended introduction to the season. In episode 1, we get to know Owen Milgrim (rhymes with pilgrim, which is a seeker or wanderer), played with depressed, understated misery by Jonah Hill. You feel like he’s always on the verge of crying, and it’s taken a monumental amount of strength for him to reach this point in his life. He’s been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but refuses treatment.
Owen is the scapegoated black sheep of his status-conscious, wealthy, dysfunctional family. Gabriel Byrne plays his cruel industrialist father, Porter. Trudie Styler plays his socialite mother. In real life, Styler is married to the musician Sting- that’ll come up later. Owen has 4 older brothers, 3 of whom remain largely anonymous. Billy Magnussen plays Owen’s brother Jed, who is the favorite child and a psychopath who targets Owen specifically with threats and violence. Magnussen also plays Grimsson, Owen’s recurring hallucination of the brother he wishes he had. Jemima Kirke plays Adelaide, Jed’s fiancée, and one of Owen’s objects of affection.
The story takes place in a parallel reality, in an unspecified year that’s close to our present day. The look of the production design is known as Cassette Futurism, in which the basic design and technology matches the late 70s and 80s, but there are odd pockets that are advanced beyond our own, such as a sentient, overemotional computer and medications that give a very specific hallucinatory experience. Cassette Futurism was also used in A Clockwork Orange, which, like Maniac, uses pain, new psychological treatments, and repeated exposure to certain stimuli in an attempt to alter the mind and mental health status of the experimental subjects. Cassette Futurism was also used in the forgotten gem Space Station 76, which isn’t as surreal as Maniac, but shares its themes, has a similar look, and also has an A-list cast.
The Milgrims live in the alternate New York City. Most of the family lives in Manhattan, but Owen has recently left the family compound and business in order to create his own life. He has his own tiny apartment in Roosevelt Island and a low-level office job, but he’s struggling to make his independence work. His family haven’t let him go, and are, in fact, pressuring him to lie to provide an alibi for Jed in a sexual assault case. The case goes to trial soon, and the family expects Owen to perjure himself for Jed, which is a felony in New York state.
The episode opens with a video and voiceover by Dr James K Mantleray (Justin Theroux), inventor of the pharmaceuticals and treatment protocol that is used in the therapy program in which Owen will soon enroll. While we listen to Dr Mantleray, we follow our second protagonist, Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) as she gets cigarettes and a cup of coffee. Annie is in many ways the opposite of Owen. Where he’s quiet, but also an open book, she’s loud, antagonistic, confrontational, and a bit mysterious. We’ll get to know Annie better in episode 2, so I’m going to talk about her in more depth then, rather than spoiling her past here.
I’m not sure anyone can explain Dr Mantleray.
It begins like this. Two billion years ago, an amoeba. Wait, let’s back up. I’ve skipped too many connections. Out of nothing, in an instant, everything. An infinite cosmic orgy of matter and energy, rubbing, bumping and grinding together. There would be no galaxies, no suns, no planets, no life without collisions of heavenly bodies. Back to our amoeba. It engulfs a bacterium with unique powers, and voilà. Earth’s first photosynthesis enabled organism. Maybe it was chance. Maybe it was inevitable. This one changed amoeba becomes the ancestor of every living plant on Earth, which in turn floods the planet with oxygen, paving the way for every other form of life we know. Leading to more souls, more connections, and therefore, more worlds branching outward form the first. These forces of nature, when they converge, be they astronomical collisions, biological unions, demonstrate the infinite potential of our connections. This truth also extends to the human heart. Hypothesis: All souls are on a quest to connect. Corollary: Our minds have no awareness of this quest. Hypothesis: All the worlds that Almost Were, matter just as much as the world we’re in. Corollary: These hidden worlds cause us great pain. Camaraderie, communion, family, friendship, love, what have you. We’re lost without connection. It’s quite terrible to be alone. Put simply, my goal is to eradicate all unnecessary and inefficient forms of human pain. Forever. We must evolve past our suffering. My research into this matter is, of course, ongoing.
Of course. That speech was nothing if not foreplay.
Annie walks into a laundromat and tries to buy a pack of cigarettes from the attendant. He begins to hand them to her, then stops, and says, “No offense, but how you gonna pay for these?” Annie tells him she’s going to use an ad buddy to cover the purchase. He points to the “No Ad Buddies Accepted” sign on his glass booth, and says that, “Those -ssh-les record client conversations. National Database of Desires. The businessmen. Have you heard of it? They know you better than you know you. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s just a conspiracy theory.”
Annie leaves the laundromat, goes to a newspaper vending machine around the corner, breaks into it, and takes a fistful of quarters. When she drops them on the counter to pay for the cigarettes, the cashier comes up with another conspiracy theory about quarters, but he does accept them as payment.
Annie walks past a line of Ad Buddies waiting to be called into service, then into a restaurant, where she stops for a cup of coffee. While she’s there, she overhears a man at the next table trying to tell the others at his table a story about the time he woke up in Poland, with no idea how he got there. Everyone else is involved in their own conversations and ignores him. He’s alone in a crowd, with no one to connect to. Annie avoids making eye contact with him.
Back outside, Annie walks past a bus stop. On one end is an ad for friend proxies, who are actors that temporarily take on the identity of an absent friend or loved one for pay, so the purchaser can pretend to spend time with their special person. On the other end of the bus stop is an ad for Not All Hugs Are Created Equal: A Book About Healing by Dr Greta Mantleray (Sally Field). Dr James Mantleray says, “It’s quite terrible to be alone,” in voiceover just as Annie walks past the giant photo of his mother’s face. Gonna guess he might have some mommy issues.
She stops to browse through a pile of office supplies and furnishing that have been dumped on the sidewalk, noticing a Rubik’s cube and flipping through a copy of Don Quixote. The trash is labelled “Milgrim Industries”, and before long a Milgrim Industries security guard orders her to move along, because, “It’s trash, not a hand out.” It looks like an entire office was emptied and dumped on the sidewalk, despite the functional condition of everything it contained.
Annie asks if the guard is a cop. He tells her that he’s not, but he might as well be, authority-wise. So Owen’s family corporation is so huge and wealthy that they practically run Manhattan. And this is a society that’s just as dependent on advertising as we are, but not as dependent on electronics. Even without ubiquitous social media and handheld electronics, they’ve still found ways to isolate themselves, such as using friend proxies and Ad Buddies rather than real friends.
After the title card, the scene moves to Owen and his family, who are holding a practice session for the testimony he’ll give in Jed’s trial. The family attorney, Frank (Geoffrey Cantor), leads the questioning. Porter, Owen’s father, breaks in at times. Owen quickly becomes uncomfortable with the direction of the questions, since they reveal the history of his mental illness. Owen fidgets with a Rubik’s cube. Frank starts with easy questions, establishing that Owen is Jed’s brother and is unmarried with no children.
Then he goes straight to the rough stuff, asking Owen about the psychotic break for which he was hospitalized 10 years ago. Owen explains that he was medicated and hasn’t had another episode. The episode involved hallucinations of his brother, but he doesn’t think it’s relevant. He experiences a brief earthquake-like hallucination during the questioning. But Owen knows what’s real and what’s not. He’s 100% compos mentis (of sound mind).
Owen sits on a bench next to the water overlooking the Statue of Extra Liberty and feeds the pigeons. He’s approached by Grimsson, his recurring hallucination, secret agent handler, possible best friend. Grimsson looks exactly like Jed, except he has a moustache and doesn’t act like he’s a serial killer. Owen tells Grimsson, “You’re not supposed to be here.” Grimsson replies, “You’re still using the code words, even though I am technically invisible. Good.”
Grimsson sits next to Owen on the bench and explains that there’s a new mission. Owen has been chosen to save the world and be a hero. His new handler is a woman who will give him the details. He’ll recognize her when he sees her and should make contact with her. As he’s leaving, Grimsson tells Owen that, “The pattern is the pattern.” He disappears just before he moves off camera.
During Grimsson’s instructions, Owen was chanting that he didn’t want this assignment. Now he feels another earthquake, and the corn kernels he left on the ground for the pigeons pop, becoming popcorn. His world is becoming unstable, and unexpected change is coming.
Owen attempts to buy a subway fare card, but has insufficient funds, so he chooses the Ad Buddy option to raise more money. His Ad Buddy, a man in a trench coat, carrying a plastic case full of potential ads, joins him on the subway ride home. The Ad Buddy receives Owen’s personal information so that the ads he reads can be targeted. The first ad is to consider joining “Daddy’s Home” and becoming a temporary mail order husband. Emma Stone’s face appears in the ad as the newly bereaved widow in need of a temporary fake husband. The next ad is for Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech, which is offering to supplement his income if he’ll take part in pharmaceutical testing. The Ad Buddy says that his rent is 87.2% of his income and any disruption in his financial life, like a work furlough, could ruin him financially.
The Ad Buddy company has very thorough information.
The Neberdine Pharmaceuticals slogan is “Find the end of your rainbow.”
The Ad Buddy moves on to an ad recruiting Owen to become a friend proxy.
Owen calls Daddy’s Home from his office cubicle. Though it’s listed as a volunteer opportunity, he’d have to pay his own relocation costs and he’d inherit the previous husband’s debts. Owen points out that this means he has to pay for the position. The operator tries to convince him to sign up anyway, reminding him that he’d be getting a lonely, needy wife. Ew. At least Owen cuts him off there and hangs up.
One of Owen’s co-workers joins him and says things about hammerheads and bullets and randomized patterns that I don’t understand at all, but I guess mean that Owen’s being laid off, or furloughed, in Maniac-speak. There were 30 memos on it in one morning. The co-worker is trying to mimic Owen’s dry humor, which is actually just the way Owen talks.
When he finds out that the furlough is permanent, Owen experiences another earthquake, then he runs to the men’s room to vomit. He pulls the toilet paper dispenser off the wall in anger, and discovers that “The pattern is the pattern,” is written on the wall behind it.
As Owen walks home, he sees Annie’s face again, this time on a street ad for golfing in Hilton Head. He lets a recorded therapy session play in the background while he eats dinner, then uses his medication for target practice. He has Greta Mantleray’s book No Fix, Just Bliss on his desk. The therapy session discusses the same heroic situation that he discussed with Grimsson. He’s been waiting a long time for his new handler and partner to show up.
A package arrives from Neverdine Pharmaceuticals just as his phone rings. The woman on the phone informs him that he’s a very desirable candidate for their study. In fact, he’s a hero candidate. The study he’ll be part of will help treat a long list of symptoms, including
popcorn prostate problems. They’ll expect him on site Monday.
Owen attends a recital at the family home given by a barbershop quartet made up of his 4 older brothers. Owen is one brother too many, and doesn’t fit the aesthetic they’re going for, anyway.
After, he plays dolls and secret agents with his nieces until it’s time for dinner. During dinner, Jed tells a story about his pet gerbil, who was an escape artist. One day when he went missing, he was nowhere to be found. It turned out that Owen had found an injured red-tailed hawk in the park, and had been nursing it back to health in his room for months. The hawk had recovered enough to get into Jed’s room and eat the gerbil.
Jed tells this story in a way that mocks and demeans Owen as much as possible. When one of the kids asks what happened to the hawk, Jed gets a smirk on his face, looks Owen in the eyes, and says, “We set it free.” Owen sits stock still, with a sick look on his face.
I don’t think that hawk flew away to a happy ending.
Later, Jed’s fiancée, Adelaide, and Owen look at a recently painted family portrait. In the painting, the family are all looking in different directions, in different positions, and scattered around the room, as if they don’t like each other or want to be in the same room together. Owen isn’t even in the painting. There’s a small framed photo of him a couple of feet to the side of the large painting. Adelaide tells him that she told Jed she wouldn’t set a wedding date until they had Owen painted in. Owen says he’ll be painted in, once the artist returns from studying the light Nepal.
Sounds like the artist tried to get as far away from the Milgrims as possible.
Owen lets Adelaide know that he lost his job and is considering becoming a temporary replacement husband for widows. He could just bounce around the country, from family to family. Adelaide asks if he’s ever noticed that his plans often include starting over with an entirely new identity?
I don’t think that’s an accident.
Owen says it’s a good fantasy. As they head back to the rest of the family for desert, he explains that the two of them could leave together, tonight. He could get them passports and new identities, while she stole the money from Jed’s bank account. They could start over as different people, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. She asks if they’d be a married couple. He says they could be brother and sister, friends, whatever. But he’s serious; he wants to do it.
Adelaide decides that he’s just messing around, and he goes along with it, even though he’d run away with her in a heart beat. She brings up the trial, and how stressful it’s going to be. Owen comforts her and tries to convince her that Jed’s innocent. He lies when she asks, and says he was with Jed during the “incident”.
The family is preparing to play Balderdash and all insist Owen loves it, despite his insistence that he hates it. Jed is the one who loves Balderdash, and probably blackmailed Owen into pretending to like it at some point. But no one will let Owen finish a sentence, or actually listen to and hear what he says. He finally gets angry, then they all decide his mental illness is acting up.
Porter walks Owen to the subway, and tries to convince Owen to come work for him, like all of his brothers, and to let Porter buy him an apartment. Owen doesn’t want that, because then Porter would own him. He tells Porter that he doesn’t need to be bribed into testifying for Jed.
Porter goes into an explanation about how the family and reality work. He says Owen isn’t being bribed. Owen is giving Jed the gift of an alibi in order to protect him and the family from an opportunist. That’s how reality functions- with “adjustments”. (Consider those air quotes.)
Too bad the “reality adjustments” never work in Owen’s favor.
Before they say goodnight, Owen tells his father that he has a new job, in marketing, which involves some travel. He needs to spend a few days out of town, so he won’t be available, but he’ll be back in time for the trial. Porter congratulates his son, telling him that Milgrim men always come out on top.
After Porter is done giving his explanation to Owen, and they say goodbye, a tiny sanitation bot is cleans up dog feces from where they stood with Porter’s dog. Then the bot sprays disinfectant on the pavement. Perfect commentary.
On Monday, Owen enter the Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech building for the drug trial. While he’s in the waiting room, filling out forms, another test subject tells him that this study is high risk and high pay. They’re testing something mind-altering, which the company is having trouble with.
In the background, Annie can be seen a hallway arguing with someone, insisting that she’s supposed to be in the trial. Recognizing her face, Owen watches her as she argues with one of the intake nurses at the front desk, then sits down a few rows away from him. He’s called in for preliminary testing soon after.
For the preliminary test, Owen is shown random photos, and asked to say what emotion they make him feel. Medication-calm. Hawk- justice. A family dinner- suffocated. For the final question, the nurse stares at Owen, and doesn’t ask a question. After several questions, he asks if she’s going to ask a question, then he asks if what he said will disqualify him. A green light on her desk lights up. She responds that his defense mechanisms are fungible, so he’s been accepted into the test.
When Owen emerges into the waiting room, he sits down across from Annie. He tries to talk to her, asking her if she lost her husband recently or plays golf, as if the ads he saw her in were real. She’s not receptive to his attempts at conversation, to put it mildly. She threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t leave her alone.
Then their group of study participants, the ULP odds, are called to line up. Annie makes a beeline for the door. She’s #9.
Before Owen can get up, Grimsson appears in Annie’s seat. He says the pattern is the pattern and Annie is Owen’s handler now. He needs to make contact with her and use the code phrase. Grimsson approves of Annie. He thinks she has a certain “je ne sais quoi,” even though she’s no Olivia. Grimsson reminds Owen to trust the pattern, even when it doesn’t make sense. He gestures for Owen to touch Annie with his pointer finger to make contact. When he’s done delivering his message, Grimsson gets up and disappears.
Owen gets in line behind Annie and touches her back with his finger. She turns around and asks what’s wrong with him, but she’s noticed him for real now.
Down in the study lab, Dr Azumi Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno), the assistant scientist on the study, tries to get Dr Robert Muramoto (Rome Kanda), current lead scientist, in shape to meet the patients, but he’s been freebasing drugs. They agree not to let any of the old problems interfere with this drug trial. Neither says anything about new problems.
Always be very careful with wording when making a wish or a solemn pact, casting a spell, or signing a legally binding document.
Speaking of wishes, when the odds are shown into their quarters for the study, they are oriented by an orderly named Carl, played by James Monroe Inglehart, the original Genie from Aladdin on Broadway. He has the perfect voice for listing the many rules and regulations the study participants have to follow, and giving the rules a sense of authority.
The odds are shown into the common room, where they’ve each been assigned a pod with their number on it. Their number is on their lanyard. Their belongings will be searched, after which they can place their luggage in their lockers and change into their uniforms and patented Neberdine shoes, which they do not get to keep at the end of the trial. They are to change their clothes in their pods, not out in the open in the commons.
Annie races through this procedure. Owen goes slowly, because he’s staring at Annie. An orderly finds condoms in #5’s bag, which is an automatic red flag and expulsion. Carl begins listing the rules about intimacy and interactions between test subjects. The rules amount to, don’t do it. No fraternizing.
While the group is distracted by the condom scandal, Owen approaches Annie and says the code phrase, “You’re not supposed to be here.” Annie angrily says, “Please!” Owen gets a bit panicky and says, “What are my instructions? The pattern is the pattern. You’re my contact. What are my instructions?” Then Owen turns to the side and begins compulsively repeating, “Please turn off the pattern,” to himself.
Either Annie is a quick thinker or she really is Owen’s contact. She grabs him and makes him look at her, then tells him to go to his pod and wait for her signal. They agree that they are going to save the world, but only if he doesn’t blow their cover.
Carl is still listing rules. They will be told when to eat and sleep, and when they can play with the Lite Brite.
Finally, it’s time to introduce the doctors. Drs Fujita and Muramoto walk into the hall in unison, bow to the specially modified computer created for their treatment protocol, then enter the commons.
Dr Muramoto: Welcome, subjects. You’ve made the right choice. It’s time to start your lives again. [He points at Owen.] You don’t f–k this up, I won’t f–k this up. Just kidding.
Dr Fujita lights a cigarette.
The hypotheses, corollaries and goal of the research, which Dr Mantleray lists in his opening voiceover, are what the season is really about. The paradox of the human need for connection, complicated by the fear and pain we’ve experienced, which leads us to reject the very thing we’re desperate for.
The Ad Buddy company knew that Owen was going to be furloughed before it happened. All of his ads were targeted toward replacing lost income.
As far as I can tell, the actors who play the brothers actually sang the barbershop quartet song, You’ll Never Know the Good Fellow I’ve Been.
Kudos to the whole cast on this show, but for this episode, the prize to go to Billy Magnussen, who’s lovable as Grimsson and repulsive as Jed. What a difference a mustache and a little slouching makes, vs crazy eyes and hyperactivity.
Images courtesy of Netflix.