Netflix Buried Its Most Audacious Sci-Fi Miniseries, But You Should Dig It Back Up
The mind is a battleground in this oft-forgotten Netflix limited series.
In its race to conquer Hollywood, Netflix has produced more movies, TV shows, and limited series than it’s known what to do with. While some of those originals have been given the chance to shine and endure, many have been lost or forgotten in the decade-long grind of the platform’s constantly churning release machine. Even seemingly high-profile, acclaimed limited series like Unbelievable and Maid have failed to secure lasting places in the pop cultural conversion.
The same fate has befallen Maniac. The ambitious, Emma Stone-led sci-fi miniseries premiered on Netflix five years ago to near-universal acclaim, but it’s since been forgotten by most viewers. That’s a shame because Maniac is a rare thing. It’s a big-budget, star and filmmaker-driven sci-fi series that’s messy, ambitious, uneven, visually stunning, and shockingly moving — and it’s all of those things at once.
It swung for the fences and connected, and it’s worth looking back and remembering what makes Maniac such a compelling gem... especially since all 10 episodes are still available on Netflix, even if the platform doesn’t exactly advertise it.
Based on a Norwegian TV series, Maniac follows Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), two disparate characters suffering from mental health issues. They meet as participants in a pharmaceutical trial overseen by Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), the inventor of a medication he promises can solve all of its users’ mental and emotional problems.
What neither character realizes is that the meds cause intense hallucinations. Maniac, consequently, follows Annie and Owen as they work their way through alternate realities where they’re different people living different lives. These worlds allow Maniac to adopt a different aesthetic and genre in its later episodes, including a Coen Brothers-esque domestic crime comedy, a 1940s-infused con man romance, a gangster thriller, and an outrageous high fantasy adventure.
The series, created by Station Eleven showrunner Patrick Somerville and directed by True Detective director Cary Joji Fukunaga, dives into each story with reckless abandon. Not all of them work as well as others, but it’s all audacious enough to keep your attention. Maniac feels like a spiritual successor to FX’s Legion, which also plunges its viewers into a surreal, uncanny world full of horrifying monsters, absurd creations, and wells of emotion. It’s the latter aspect that makes Maniac work; as entertaining as it is to see the series bounce between a dozen different genres, none of what happens would matter if the show was emotionally hollow.
Underneath its many oddities and quirky detours, there’s a genuine interest in exploring and confronting Annie and Owen’s issues. That element is best demonstrated in Maniac’s fifth episode, which sees Annie woken from a surreal dream by Dr. Mantleray and interviewed to determine whether enough progress has been made in dissolving her “defense mechanisms.” The interview, which feels like a quasi-therapy session (and quasi-homage to the processing scene from The Master), is a marvel of emotionally explicit, confrontational storytelling.
It’s not immediately obvious, but Maniac is a natural precursor to Somerville’s adaptation of Station Eleven, the best dystopian TV show or film in years. Like Maniac, the HBO Max series is a high-concept sci-fi thriller full of messy characters who come to realize the importance of connection in the wake of unimaginable trauma and loss. Maniac is considerably messier, but its themes are no less potent.
Five years later, it remains the kind of creatively bold and experimental TV series that Netflix has largely abandoned in favor of sludge. Combine Somerville’s dense, genre-infused storytelling with Fukunaga’s customarily excellent direction and the best performance Emma Stone has ever given, and what you’ve got is a show that should be remembered far more fondly. Whether you’ve never seen it before or haven’t revisited it since 2018, now’s as good a time as any to give Maniac the attention it deserves.
Maniac is streaming on Netflix.