Maniac Jonah Hill and Emma Stone in Netflix's "Maniac." (Image credits: Netflix)

I'm halfway through Netflix's Maniac. I have no idea where it's going. I'm starting to forget, on occasion, what is real and what isn't.

The gist: A clinic drug trial hopes to make some sort of neural (spiritual?) breakthrough, offering to "fix" what's wrong with us. Or something. It's hard to tell exactly what's being done — and why.

Netflix's own description is apt:

Set in a world somewhat like our world, in a time quite similar to our time, Maniac tells the stories of Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill), two strangers drawn to the late stages of a mysterious pharmaceutical trial, each for their own reasons. Annie's disaffected and aimless, fixated on broken relationships with her mother and her sister; Owen, the fifth son of wealthy New York industrialists, has struggled his whole life with a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. Neither of their lives have turned out quite right, and the promise of a new, radical kind of pharmaceutical treatment—a sequence of pills its inventor, Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), claims can repair anything about the mind, be it mental illness or heartbreak—draws them and ten other strangers to the facilities of Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech for a three-day drug trial that will, they're assured, with no complications or side-effects whatsoever, solve all of their problems, permanently.

Things do not go as planned.

All I know is I can't stop watching.

And that's due in no small part to Jonah Hill's Owen Milgrim. I've never really been a fan of the actor — blame Superbad for that, I suppose — but there's no denying that dude can act.

And Maniac is one of those limited series that allows for a nearly unprecedented range. He's not just playing one role. He's playing, so far, (at least) three roles. I wouldn't be surprised if more show up. He's not just the depressed, broke brother who saw his sibling to something illegal and for whatever reason has shunned the family's yuppie life. He's also the mullet-sporting, jersey-wearing, scared-to-death devoted husband. He's also the slick tuxedo-wearing thief, able to mix with the best of whatever this weird "Neverdie" society is.

And neither is co-star Emma Stone playing a singular role in Annie Landsberg, but for whatever reason why I see her — and maybe it's when I hear her — it's still Emma Stone. That's not to lessen her performance, which also is excellent. It's just that I get more of a transformation from Hill. It's probably because of the mullet.

And what can you say about Justin Theroux that hasn't been said a million times before. Dude is a chameleon. And you very much accept that he can be a brilliant (if troubled) scientist with a strong penchant for VR.

The other real star, as so often happen in shows from Cary Joji Fukunaga, is the show itself. The look and feel of the real timeline — some sort of crazy 1980s retro futuristic 8-bit semi-urban hellscape — is just cold. It's New York — not Manhattan, though? — but it's also matte plastic New York. There's no gloss. The only real warmth comes from within the Milgrim home — not that Owen wants any part of it — and between Annie and her sister. That is, until Annie detonates it.

Fukunaga creates words within worlds. Just like the backwoods of Louisiana were a character in the first season of HBO's True Detective, the various worlds of Maniac are their own characters here. The city. The Milgrim home. The lab. The burbs. Whatever else is coming, too.

Maniac is a weird-ass show. You get that from the trailer. If you're halfway through it and are surprised that you're surprised, I can't help you.

This is one show where you're going to have to swallow the pill and enjoy the ride, all on your own.

See Maniac on Netflix



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