Cary Joji Fukunaga is having a good week. For several years, he seems to have toiled around with various properties and ultimately left otherwise successful projects. The groundswell of a “creative differences” syndrome had begun to take hold. Honestly, as a huge fan of Sin Nombre, I’d grown concerned that we might never see him get back to that place. There’s a diverging path for a director who comes out strong early in their career and then gets labeled “difficult.” Sometimes it works out and you’re Christopher Nolan. Other times it’s more of a struggle and you begin to fade, like Josh Trank after Chronicle.
This isn’t to say that there’s a set number of paths for any one kind of filmmaker. They are not bound to two paths. As Fukunaga’s week has shown us, there are infinite possibilities. He now finds himself attached to direct the next James Bond movie. And he’s the creative force behind one of Netflix’s best originals to-date, Maniac.
It’s the new Netflix joint that brings you and me together, dear reader. I’d like to tell you of my experience inside this excellent piece of world-building. Maniac is set in a near-future world that looks and feels a lot like ours, but with distinct differences. Imagine a world like ours, but no one ever invented cell phones. It’s a future in which technology has advanced, but not in the sleek ways of our usual sci-fi dreams. As Owen, played by an initially subdued Jonah Hill, works through losing his job and the pressures of being a family where he feels like an outcast, the detail of this psuedo-future comes to life. Analog phones, little robots that clean up dog poop, and people called Ad Buddies who, if say, you can’t afford a bus ticket, will buy it for you if you’re willing to sit alongside them the entire way while they read you ads. It’s weird enough to be unsettling, meticulous enough to be endlessly fascinating.
By the time we meet Annie, played by Emma Stone, we’ve watched Owen’s illness manifest several times. He’s schizophrenic, often delusional. He’s had what he calls a “blip,” a break with reality that allows him to see and talk to an imaginary brother who looks like his real brother, who is in actuality kind of a dick. Annie is working through her own issues. She’s had some trauma in her past that has led her to an addictive relationship with one of the drugs involved in the trial. Together, they enter the world of three eccentric doctors (Rome Kanda, Sonoya Mizuno, and Justin Theroux) who have set out to cure all mental illness by creating a chemical treatment (pill) with the help of an advanced AI computer they’ve affectionately named Gertie.
The show’s main thrust is about Annie and Owen and their experiences taking the drugs and interacting with each other in a digital space controlled by Gertie. In three steps, they are meant to expose their traumas, identify their blind spots, and ultimately confront said trauma. But there’s an interesting B-story that involves the three doctors, especially Justin Theroux’s Dr. James Mantleray. He has his own shit to work out.
It would be easy for a show like this to descend into the realm of the surreal. We are dealing with the mind’s interpretation of events and emotions, after all. And while the whole thing gets plenty weird, the audience is grounded by the work of Hill and Stone, both of whom perform brilliantly in roles that vary wildly from episode-to-episode. There are the raw nerves of their characters in the real world — two people and their trauma laid bare for the world to see and for doctors to obsessively scrutinize. And there are the heightened versions inside their heads. Emma Stone goes from being photographed at close range in a post-treatment interview setting to playing a femme fatale in a Dr. Strangelove-esque scenario to playing a warrior elf with messed up ears and a drinking problem. All within a 3-4 episode span. There’s even a vignette in which Hill and Stone play a married couple with a Raising Arizona vibe. Their mission: to steal a lemur and return it to its rightful owner.
Yes, it’s all very odd. But also mesmerizing.
Fukunaga also experiments with the audience’s sense of time. As he explained to GQ not long ago, his work with Netflix’s notes included lessons from the algorithm. For Maniac, he and co-creator Patrick Somerville built their series with the help of insights about how people watch and binge shows on Netflix. The results can be seen in an episode in the middle of the season that’s 26-minutes. Or in the way Maniac unfolds with lively bursts of momentum at the absolute right moments. As an experiment in the structure of television, it’s worthy of further study.
Maniac is a brilliant piece of world-building. It’s also a quick binge that lets a cast full of talented actors go to weird spaces where they can show us an array of new tools. And while Fukunaga considers this to be lighter fare than Beasts of No Nation or True Detective, he’s not afraid to challenge his audience with a thoughtful exploration of trauma, obsession, and the many unhealthy consequences of not dealing with our own shit. As a limited series, it feels like an extended piece of cinema. It also feels like a filmmaker in complete control of the experience. A testament to the world’s he’s creating and to the algorithmic patterns of our own minds.
Seriously, go watch it. It might be one of the best shows of the year.