Netflix’s Maniac is a moving, surreal, sharp take on themes from trauma to capitalism to loneliness

Emma Stone and Jonah Hill offer fresh, convincing performances as two people who see themselves as fundamentally broken.

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The Netflix original series Maniac is set in an alternative dystopia, at once futuristic and filled with retro-tech. It’s a bleak, economically unstable urban landscape – people desperately attempt to make extra cash by posing as “friend proxies” or “temporary volunteer mail-order husbands”, listening to adverts read aloud for a company called Ad Buddy, or taking part in risky pharmaceutical trials. It’s here that Owen (Jonah Hill), a recently unemployed man struggling with schizophrenia, meets Annie (Emma Stone), a bereaved addict who sneaks her way on to the trial to get her hands on the mysterious drugs.

The participants take a series of tablets – A, then B, then C – and are hooked up to a supercomputer. We watch as Annie and Owen return repeatedly to their “core traumas” in immersive flashbacks, before experiencing a series of trippy dreams that will hopefully help them break out of unhealthy patterns of behaviour. A glitch in the system means their fantasies are fused together: they always appear in each other’s visions.

It’s a visually compelling, often funny show that is sharp on a number of contemporary themes – how trauma interacts with mental health problems, or how a capitalist society that only values people for their economic worth can erode both a sense of self, and a connection to a wider community. As well as their myriad alter egos, Stone (who wields a jutting jaw as petulant, self-destructive Annie) and Hill (with a wounded passivity that is at once funny and painful to watch) offer fresh, convincing performances as two lonely people who see themselves as fundamentally broken. Maniac suggests there might not be a simple, “elegant way to fix people”. But it hopes we might find some healing in each other. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How austerity broke Britain