TV Party: 'Maniac' on Netflix

Emma Stone and Jonah Hill reunite for Netflix's journey into the depths of the mind, loosely adapted from a Norwegian series.

by Lauren O'Neill
26 September 2018, 8:15am

All screen shots via 'Maniac' / Netflix

Welcome to TV Party, VICE's weekly TV column, brought to you by resident sad-act, me, Lauren O’Neill, where I basically just talk for a bit about the best (or worst) thing on telly this week. Best enjoyed with a plate of your favourite breaded item and an open mind. Contains spoilers, obvs. This week: 'Maniac'.

American remakes of films and TV shows which originated elsewhere (specifically the UK and Scandinavia) usually make my stomach turn. Sorry to come in so spicy, but unfortunately it's true: barring the late, great US Office, US re-imaginings of European material don't have a great history. Let Me In was shite, with so little of the spine-chilling beauty of the Swedish original; it's best not to mention their attempts at Skins or The Inbetweeners; and I dread to think what havoc they will wreak on my sweet, precious Love Island. Generally speaking, remakes are just not America's strong suit, though it seems to think they are.

I think this issue is produced by a bit of a vicious circle: it's generally thought that American sensibilities are mainstream sensibilities (which millennials weren't raised on Friends?), because American production companies have the most money in the western world, therefore they get the most stuff made. That, in turn, is the stuff we’re mostly exposed to even in the UK, which means that it gets to dictate our expectations going forward. Thus, we become convinced of its universality. On and on it goes.

But America is so big, so large and flashy and showy – a bombastic, all-singing, all-dancing musical of a country, on the world stage at least – that often, the artistic sensibilities it espouses jar with concepts from other countries which might require more restraint, or which came alive in the first place because of their geographical idiosyncrasies (think of Scandi noir, for example, born out of the still but restless winters of northern Europe).

Of course, successful Europe to US transitions are possible – my favourite is the masterful Veep, which worked precisely because politics lends itself so specifically to the local, adapting effortlessly to the USA's bureaucratic lexicon – but it usually happens when the American version acknowledges its American-ness. That, you'll be pleased to hear, is exactly the joy of Maniac, a loose adaptation of a Norwegian series on Netflix directed by True Detective season one mastermind (and now James Bond big man) Cary Fukunaga.

*Seinfeld voice* What’s the deal with Maniac?

In a sort of Black Mirror "What if now but slightly more terrifying??" sense, Maniac opens on a New York where little sanitation Wall-Es roam the streets picking up dog shit, and where choosing to listen to an infomercial can replace monetary payment for items and services. Maniac’s New York is a dark, dingy alternative to the version of the City That Never Sleeps that we typically see on our screens, lit by neons advertising Oral B in people's homes. In short: it's dystopian, baby!

When we zoom in, we meet Owen Milgrim – a mentally ill familial black sheep who sees visions of a moustached version of his douchebag brother, and continually receives the message "the pattern is the pattern" – and Annie Landsberg, portrayed early on as an unfortunate, angry manic pixie dream girl, though the character does evolve. Annie and Owen find themselves at a risky pharmaceutical drug trial for a pill that promises happiness, at which point the look and feel that had previously been hinted at via retro-futuristic touches like the aforementioned poop-scoop goes full out, and Maniac becomes like a Bruce Bogtrotter cake for the eyes, all sharp lines and bright colours. It's through the drug trial that we get to the meat of the show, as Annie and Owen eventually end up reliving trauma through joint hallucinations which translate onscreen as fantastical, genre-flipping scenarios.

Who's even in it?

That, of course, is the big pull: for the first time since their joint turn in Superbad, seared into the minds of everyone who snuck into the cinema to see it when they were just underage, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are reunited, their chemistry still as fun to watch as it was in 2007. Both actors are fundamentally playing against the types they’ve established throughout their very successful careers here: Hill is surprising as the morose Owen Milgrim, while Stone is hard-edged (though the bad bleach job doesn’t sit quite right atop the apples of her aggressively healthy-seeming face), though each get to flex their versatility in the hallucination sequences, which flit between fantasy, action and, uh, lemur-rescuing.

Elsewhere, Jemima Kirke and Sally Field pop up, and there's also a fun turn from Justin Theroux. Big hitters, everywhere!

OK fine – but is it any good?

It is quite. I took a while to get going with Maniac, mostly because it’s a bit hard to follow, with lots of new language and concepts in the beginning – but once it lifts off it’s entertaining, and feels really original; or as original as a US remake of a Norwegian series can be. On that note, let’s return for a second to what I was going on about earlier in the review: Maniac works because it takes the loose concept of the original (the many differences are helpfully explained here by the good people at Vulture), and turns it into something that is an exploration of Hollywood genre as much as anything else – there are nods to everything from Lord of the Rings to classic screwball comedies, and it serves its actors marvellously, as well as becoming something that would only make sense if it’s American. It doesn’t miss the specificity, and that feels important to its general success.

Can I watch it with my mum or is there shagging?

Moderately mum friendly, but she might want to avoid the bits with Justin Theroux wanking in virtual reality (she also might not)?? She'll probably be into it though, largely, and will almost definitely say something like, "Ooh it’s a bit…..psychological! Isn't it?"

What are the perfect conditions for watching it, then?

Despite the fact that you will desperately want to binge it in one night, I'd advise taking it slow or you might break your brain and/or bother your housemates talking about existentialism, not sure which is worse.

If Maniac were a nugget, how would you describe it?

If you eat a nugget in a dream, do you ever really even eat the nugget???

Is it likely to cause a Twitter shitstorm?

Not really a shitstorm, more just some well-considered notes. Maniac has generally been well-reviewed, and its creativity is very cool and novel, but some reviewers have observed that while it’s good-hearted (Fukunaga has noted his intentions to "destigmatise mental illness"), the show’s approach to mental illness can feel a little simplistic. As a counterpoint, others have praised its acknowledgement of the gradual process of understanding and dealing with mental health problems – especially crucial for a character like Owen, who suffers from schizophrenia. Mental health is an intensely personal concept, so responses are going to vary, but ultimately I can see how it might jar for mental illness to essentially serve as a plot springboard.

Any last words?

My words of advice on a practical level are these: power through the early episodes and don’t watch it before bed. On an existential level: get ready to question your past and fundamental reality!


Jonah Hill
emma stone