The expansion of television during the past fifteen years has really opened the gates for various storytellers. While there was once a limit to how weird a show could get, it seems like the barriers have been broken down. One show to thank for that was the underrated series, “The Leftovers,” where Damien Lindeloff let his weirdness out to tell a riveting narrative. Even before “The Leftovers,” shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Adventure Time” paved the way in animation. These shows could be odd, and at the same time, misleadingly deep stories. Something like “Maniac” likely does not happen without those kinds of shows. Yet with Cary Joji Fukunaga at the helm and actors Emma Stone and Jonah Hill willing to go down these rabbit holes, the series elevates television to new heights.
“Maniac” tells the story of two individuals who have signed up for a drug trial. Annie (Stone) deals with the trauma and PTSD of the accident that killed her sister (Julia Garner). Owen (Hill) must lie in court to protect his brother (Billy Magnussen) at the request of his father (Gabriel Byrne). The drug trial is headed up by Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno) and Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theoux). When something goes wrong, Mantleray also brings in his mother (Sally Field).
The show is slow at first, using the first three episodes to lay the groundwork for everything to come. What feels like a fairly generic story at first quickly becomes a wacky and genre-bending tale in the vein of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” meets “Total Recall” from 1990. Annie and Owen bend through various genres, including a crime story centered around an illegal lemur in 1980’s upstate New York, a period piece mystery, a “Lord of the Rings”-style world of elves, and an espionage action film. Fukunaga brings the most out of each genre we approach, which helps to dive deeper into the character arcs.
Stone digs deep here and delivers an awe-inspiring dramatic turn. There’s a lot more on the table than she has delivered in many of her roles. She’s riddled with PTSD and the emotion runs through her in scene after scene. The style of the series allows her to hit every spectrum as a performer, from intensely quiet internal moments to very big emotional breakdowns. Her intensity and talent should never be in question again because she can bring out amazing moments without even needing words.
Hill also brings some fun work. He gets to stretch a little, but there remains a tinge of comedy beneath each of his otherworldly roles. Ironically enough, real world Owen brings the most exciting moments of Hill’s in the series. He has deep psychological problems and you can see him trying to work through things in his mind. His disbelief in himself and those around him can be tragic to watch at times. He elevates the part, and gives real subtext to Owen’s struggles.
The breakout actress will be Sonoya Mizuno as Dr. Fujita. She brings out the best in everyone around her across every scene. Fujita also shows off some badass tendencies, while remaining in control of most of her scenes. She’s a go-getter and an ambitious one at that. Because she is not willing to sacrifice the best for her, she expects others to rise to the occasion. Mizuno telegraphs her character’s inner feelings brilliantly while keeping her the picture of a strong female.
Theroux and Field both bring the most out of their roles. While their good work is not surprising, they still find ways to surprise in little moments. Field is particularly funny when she is called to deliver lines about drug use and sex. Theroux’s willingness to make himself look ridiculous can never be unvalued. Magnussen again delivers intense moments, but the script gives him the ability to juxtapose that with emotionally fulfilling and tender ones. He really shows off here, and were it not for the talent at the top, he might be getting best in show recognition.
The real showcase here comes for Fukunaga. He again pulls off a stunning turn of direction, further cementing his case as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. Fukunaga brings the story to life through beautiful imagery, costumes, sound design, cinematography, production, and his tendency to embrace his actors’ weirder quirks. He pulls off another extended tracking shot every bit as impressive as the one from “True Detective.” He gets the most out of the script and the actors across the board. This is not a fluke. With “Maniac,” Fukunaga makes the case that he is the best TV director since David Lynch.
“Maniac” revels in strangeness, but packs a wallop of an emotional punch. A little slow out the gate, it quickly rewards its audiences with something truly special. This could easily contend with “Sharper Objects” for Best Limited Series in 2019, if for no other reason than Stone and Hill feel like locks for nominations. Regardless of its awards caliber, “Maniac” functions as weird but essential art that helps to keep TV interesting.