Netflix's most underrated sci-fi series deserves another chance

Look beyond Stranger Things to find something truly surreal.

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A recent poll of more than 1,200 Inverse readers revealed their favorite Netflix original sci-fi movies and shows. While blockbuster hits like Stranger Things and Birdbox lived up to their widespread popularity in the results, a handful of hidden gems were left on the sidelines. Among those was Maniac, garnering only three votes in the final tally.

Reader, I was shocked. Here's why you shouldn't sleep on Maniac, a truly underrated gem on the platform.

Maniac spends its first two episodes detailing the backstories of its main characters, Owen, played by a surprisingly nuanced Jonah Hill, and Annie, played by the always delightful Emma Stone. These episodes detail their struggles with mental health disorders and their decision to sign up for an ambitious drug trial run by mysterious pharmaceutical company Neberdine. It takes place against the backdrop of an intriguing retro-futuristic New York City full of bizarre technology like tiny robot street cleaners.

What follows are eight episodes of genre-hopping escapades, each detailing another stage in their treatment. These range from in-universe exposition, as Owen and Annie seek the origins to the treatment, to complex hallucinations caused by the drug. Episodes hop between genres to depict heists, elf princesses, and a ring-tailed lemur named Nan.

"Bruce" and "Lin" in a shared hallucination


By using these jumps in tone and setting, Maniac avoids an issue unique to streaming shows: with a series made available all at once, it can be tempting to make the episodes blur into each other, forming what is essentially a 10-hour movie. With each of these hallucinations, the episodes remain distinct, making each one satisfying in their own right.

These stories also provide an opportunity for Hill and Stone to flex their acting muscles to their limit, jumping from comedy to drama to high fantasy and back again. The supporting cast is just as excellent: Justin Theroux, Julia Garner, and Sally Field each bring nuance to their characters both in and out of the hallucinations.

Julia Garner and Emma Stone as "Ellia" and "Annia"


On top of the surreal fantasy stories, Maniac also provides a much-needed mental health story that doesn't stigmatize disorders like Borderline Personality Disorder or schizophrenia. Instead, it humanizes them, and the viewer can quite literally look into their minds and get a sense of how they tick. Owen talks often of his psychotic break, referring to it only as a "blip." Discussing events of that nature is a difficult task in real life, so a show broaching the topic makes it seem more approachable.

The world-building is just as unique as the rest of the show: the episodes establishing the premise include late-late-capitalism aspects like an "Ad Buddy," a companion who will read advertisements to you in lieu of payment, much like the ad-based reward system you would see on a mobile game. It feels lofty and almost Blade Runner-esque, but at the same time, you can recognize seeds of these ideas in day-to-day life.

Maniac may seem like a distant 10-episode memory from two years ago, but it's the perfect escapist television for our time, combining dystopian grittiness with the joys of human connection and the power of imagination, two things we could all use more of nowadays.

Maniac is streaming now on Netflix.

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