by Alex Masurovsky
We are in a different world. It has everything our world has— just different. It looks like something that 1980’s Japan might have dreamed up. It’s all somehow familiar, but surreal.
Are we dreaming?
No. It’s a streaming series on Netflix, called Maniac, loosely based on a 2015 Norwegian series of the same name.
This one has director Cary Joji Fukunaga at the helm alongside first-time series writer Patrick Somerville. Somerville, a two-time novelist, made his way to TV writing episodes for FX’s The Bridge andHBO’s The Leftovers. Fukunaga is perhaps best known for directing HBO’s True Detective, where he takes us along quiet stretches of the Louisiana countryside while his principle characters, tortured souls, busy themselves with vigilante detective work. The tone of Maniac is not quite so dark, but there is a raw honesty underlying its fantastical, silly, near-future world.
As we stroll around this iteration of New York, we quickly notice its dystopian bent: people have ceded ever more of their personal lives to the hands of large corporations; everything is for sale; people are anonymous; people are lonely. Technology is different here, retaining more of a mechanical look and feel than the seamlessly beautiful devices developed by the likes of Apple and its disciples in real life. A Russian tour group gazes at the Statue of Extra Liberty; functional-but-clunky robots get in the way of pedestrians as they sweep the sidewalks; in lieu of pop-up ads on phones, “ad buddies” ride the subway with people short on cash, reading advertisements aloud to them; a service called Friend Proxy provides a companion who acts like an old friend for an hour or two; computers with incredible AI capabilities and text-to-speech robot voices have interfaces that look like MS DOS. This is one of the true joys of the series: if it was set in exactly our world, we might not notice the ridiculousness of how the characters live, or where their society might be heading; but the small differences bring these points to light.
It is a particularly challenging world for Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), a shy, kind-hearted 30-something with a dryness to his sense of humor that may be, at least in part, a product of his schizophrenia. He is growing tired of the potent medication he must take to keep it under control and has the timeless problem of having 80% of his monthly income go towards his New York rent. He is also tired of being the oddball in a wealthy family whose favorite son, Owen’s brother, is on trial for sexual assault allegations. Owen is expected to fall in line.
You might not expect him to form a connection with Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), who seems to have run out of f***’s to give. If she smiles, it is sarcastically, or condescendingly. She derives respite only from a pill, on which she has formed a dependency, and has arguments with a possibly-depressed father figure, who has locked himself in a large metal capsule labeled “A-VOID.” But Owen and Annie do meet, forming an unlikely friendship at a Phase 3 clinical trial for a supercomputer-aided drug treatment that promises to erase all emotional pain. Owen is there for the money and Annie is there for the pills.
Each stage of the trial involves taking a pill and entering into a deep sleep, wherein the a semi-autonomous supercomputer named GRTA guides the subjects through dream worlds while she rewires their brains. Two subjects’ dreams are not supposed to connect, but due to some malfunction, Annie and Owen’s do. We follow them through one dream, then another, then another. They go everywhere and anywhere, across space and time, across identities, learning more about each others’ back-stories and traumas. Slowly, they form an unlikely bond. Increasingly, our sense of what is real, already off-kilter due to the doppelgänger effect of the show’s similar-but-different world, becomes more unsteady. It’s fun.
There are also bits of fun for the neuroscience-savvy. Milgrim—Owen’s surname—for instance, brings to mind the infamous Milgram obedience experiments, in which researchers sought to better understand the power of authority by commanding each subject to send an electric shock to another subject (actually a member of the research team playing the part) at increasingly higher voltages . In Maniac, Owen’s obedience is repeatedly tested: by his family, by the hallucination of his brother telling him what to do, by the researchers in the clinical trial.
There is some clinical trial humor as well. As people have given up many their personal rights in this show’s dystopian future, so do they sign more intrusive consent forms. “That was— unethical,” one subject says, shuddering, after waking from the experience with the first pill. A staff member curtly reminds her: “You waved ethics in the consent form!” The Declaration of Helsinki, initially adopted in 1964, asserts basic rights for human subjects who participate in research, including the right to fully informed consent prior to participation and the prioritization of the subjects’ welfare over the interests of science . When the lead researcher on the study, Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Thoroux) is asked “how many of your subjects have ended up catatonic?” He replies: “Zero— roughly.” Even non-statistics nerds may find the humor in that one. Given a large enough sample, the difference of a few people reaching a catatonic state may be within the margin of error, but hopefully even one subject ending up in a coma is considered too many.
The question of how the mind and brain relate is another major theme of the show, and so is, similarly, a purely physical, neuroscientific approach to mental health vs. a talk-therapeutic, humanistic approach. Dr. Mantleray believes that by tampering with the physical structure of the brain, he can heal trauma and form more psychologically healthy attitudes in his subjects. He approaches the mind as a program that can be altered with mechanical tampering. His outlook initially seems contrary to that of his mother, Dr. Greta Mantleray (Sally Field), a therapist who has reached celebrity status selling pop-psychology books. She believes that the way to heal people is to talk to them, interact with them, treat them with dignity and respect, and let the changes happen in the brain as a result of this approach. During a debriefing interview, James steadfastly reminds a subject: “It’s nottherapy.”
The lines between brain and mind, of course, are blurry. The GRTA computer is imbued with “emotional programing” to make it better understand and protect the human subjects; but it falls in love with one of the researchers and later becomes depressed. James, at one point, goes blind due to stress, a physical problem with a psychological cause. In a scene where he must dismantle the computer, James calls out the names of GRTA’s computerized brain components. “Separating the Boolean Thalamus from the Stochastic Prefrontal Cortex!” he moans, then pulls out a series of wires. It is a humorous bit of overacting that puts into focus the mechanical parts of the thinking, feeling supercomputer.
While Maniac takes many liberties with reality for the sake of comedy or satire, Owen’s schizophrenia remains mostly true to the clinical picture . He has delusions of being a savior of the world, encouraged by a hallucination of his brother. He has deep paranoia. Other hallucinations trouble him: in times of stress, he sees the earth tremble. He tries cognitive behavioral therapy to put his delusions and paranoia into context, in addition to the medication. His tone is often flat, a common negative symptom, and it is unclear if this is due to the disorder, the medication or simply his personality. Random events have outsized personal relevance to him: having seen Annie’s face on billboards, he forms the belief that he is connected to her in some kind of larger plan. Owen seeks, most of all, what seems to be the main goal for every main character of the show: independence, respect and peace.
“I like order,” he tells Annie during downtime, between segments of the trial. “I like to know what my day is going to be… a normal life. That’s all I want.”
It feels like a bit much sometimes: with large portions of the screen time devoted to dreams and the weirdness that comes with even the “real world” moments on the show, it can sometimes feel like nothing is really at stake. If nothing is sincerely presented, nothing can be cliché; nothing can fail. It may be a product of TV in an era where everything has already been done: think, for example, self-aware supercomputer Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or more recently the mind bending, reality-questioning shared dream adventures of Inception.
But the sincerity is there, underneath the smirk. The sense of humor and silliness of Maniac allows for it to explore old themes with a fresh take: humanity, friendship, love, connection; reality and fantasy; brain and mind; machine and soul. What’s best about the show is watching the characters try so hard to be ideals of themselves and embody big ideas, only to be pulled back to earth by the cold, unsexy grip of reality.
The actors shine. Hill, typically comedic and Stone, a powerfully expressive actor, rise to the challenge of conveying depth in characters who are depressed and whose affect is flat. Thoroux’s overacted Dr. Mantleray, perhaps an homage to Carl Sagan, is fantastic, constant comic relief. He and Sonoya Mizuno as Dr. Azumi Fujita are perfect counterparts to each other: she is the even-keeled lab manager, constantly smoking a cigarette and waiting impatiently for Dr. Mantelray to finish his childish, overly dramatic rants.
It’s unclear in the end if the show has an “ultimate point.” Perhaps it is to suggest that we have a modicum of control over our own destinies, a chance to do the right thing. Or perhaps, no matter how much we try to understand and control our world, we cannot. Perhaps it is simply an exploration of what it means to be human.
“Hypothesis:” Dr. James Mantleray narrates during a montage that includes the earth from space, animals, eukaryotic bacteria, spermatozoa, gametes, and lonely people going about their lives in a big city. “All souls are on a quest to connect.”
If you’re ready to feel a bit unsteady, but also to laugh at humble moments of comic fallibility amidst reality-bending, near-future, sci-fi absurdity—then give Maniac a try.
 Milgram, S., J of Abnormal and Social Psych, 1963
 World Medical Association, wma.net
 APA, DSM, 5th Edition, 2013
Originally published in Charité Neurscience Newsletter, September 2019, Vol. 12, Issue 1