Netflix's MANIAC uses Traumatic Throwback

The new miniseries travels through time and treats trauma with high-tech therapy.

Drugs and lucid dreams probably won't cure the protagonists of Netflix's Maniac, but they've enrolled in a pharmaceutical trial that promises it's possible.

Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) submit their troubled minds to Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), who tests a new drug treatment that purportedly cures psychic pain.

The creative forces behind Maniac, a loose adaptation of a Norwegian TV show of the same name, include writer Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers) and director Cary Joki Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation). They frame Owen and Annie as disaffected adults paralyzed in moments of existential crisis, a hallmark of postmodern life in an alienating world that's rife with ads and facsimiles replacing human connection. The cause of detachment is also the putative cure, as services like AdBuddy allow you to earn supplemental income in exchange for a human representative trailing after your daily movements and reading you ad after ad aloud. Friend Proxy allows you to schedule hangouts with hired strangers pretending to be your oldest friends. A dubious service called Dox Stop offers to "scrub" or "unscrub" citizens' most private records for a fee.

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Yet, the technological landscape of Maniac is a re-imagining of today's media-laden culture with a retro-futuristic twist. Blocky computer monitors and grainy dial televisions dot the background as the co-creators' '80s throwbacks from the IBM boom. In an interview with Vulture, Somerville teases, "Something happened in the '90s." He adds, "There's a break, but at the same time, it's our world now in terms of the ideas that lay behind AdBuddy and Friend Proxy and Dox Stop. It's all just dressed up in a different way. Hopefully, it's relatable to now."

Relatability is at the heart of Maniac's conflict. Both characters live in the bubbles of their past traumas, barely engaging in the moment and often getting it wrong when they do. When Dr. Mantleray sits impassively at his desk across from Owen, he asks, "What do you think is wrong with you?" Owen's answer is flat and characteristically monotone: "I'm sick. And I don't matter."

In that regard, Owen and Annie are two misfits at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. A diagnosed schizophrenic, Owen struggles to break through his somnambulant affect to connect with others. He decides to become a test subject after being pressured by his affluent family to cure his neurodivergent mind by any means necessary. Annie, on the other hand, is a loner who refuses to engage with reality and undermines every emotional connection that threatens to link her happiness to another's. For instance, Episode 3 begins to mine Annie's motivations behind joining the drug trial, which she barely accomplishes using manipulation, deceit, and threats of bodily harm. "Every time I take that pill," she shares in a spasm of emotional intimacy, "I have to live through the worst day of my life. I have to listen to myself say the worst, ugliest things I have ever said to anyone. And it ends with the worst thing that ever happened. I fucking love it."

For facing trauma is the first step in the test subjects' treatment. Pill A forces individuals to confront the traumatic event at the source of their dysfunctional defense mechanisms, allowing us to witness firsthand the cause and effect of Owen and Annie's genuinely off-putting social quirks. Step two in the trial is behavioral modification via directing the subjects' subconsciouses to embody their alter egos. This leads to a stint of modular stories told in the middle of the series, and it opens the door for Somerville and Fukunaga to upturn their grab-bag of genre-bending visuals and occasionally gory violence (Maniac is rated TV-MA, after all). The series' world-building becomes fractal with storylines that include a lemur lost on Long Island, a mafia son played by a plaited-haired Hill, and a fantasy quest led by an elvin-eared Stone.

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Somerville purposefully embraced the capricious whims of storytelling in the creation of Maniac, telling Deadline, "Everyone knew the tone of what the show was. All the major actors had read everything. They knew the show was absolutely bonkers. What we were asking them to do was to play emotional realism against that, to ground it." Indeed, Maniac avoids weaknesses in structure and develops would-be inchoate themes with the stalwart presence of Dr. Mantleray's lab. Owen and Annie's dual (and curiously overlapping) streams of consciousness, carefully monitored within the increasingly out-of-control drug trial, drive the series' explorations of identity, trauma, and emotional connection.

The title "Maniac" encapsulates the irreverent tone, episodic structure, and meandering themes explored in the miniseries' first season (if Netflix orders a second season, it won't have Fukugana reclaiming the mantle of director). "Are the characters maniacs?" and "Is the world maniacal?" are not the core questions driving the narrative; but, they voice the anxieties of a chaotic world that questions unilateral existence and delves into dreamscapes of alternate realities, multiple personalities, and divergent thinking as the norm.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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Ever since I was in high school, when A$AP Rocky first donned the cape for New York hip-hop, I've somehow found myself closely following the saga of Travis Miller. Let me explain. When A$AP Rocky first blew up, not only was it in part his pretty boy looks and always high-end fashion taste, but for his clear Southern homegrown influence that he wore on all of his verses. If you check the credits for his debut mixtape Live.Love.A$AP, you'll find that many of the songs were produced by SpaceGhostPurpp, once a hot Miami producer known for dark and gloomy beats, now notorious for beefing with anyone and everyone on Twitter, and recently claiming he was homeless.

But from the rabbit hole that is Miami hip-hop, which included SpaceGhostPurpp's former rap collective RVIDER KLVN, featuring the likes of Yung Simmie and future XXL Freshman Denzel Curry, I found out about another artist far and away from Miami-Dade County, a one-man act who was like an island unto himself. The place was Richmond, Virginia, and that island was Travis Miller, or as I knew him when I first heard him, Lil Ugly Mane.

The connection was tenuous: he designed some of their mixtape covers, and there were some collabs here and there. But it was always clear that Ugly Mane was his own entity, he didn't sound like A$AP Rocky, he didn't sound like anyone in Raider Klan. Always rapping over his own production, every bar and distant drum or noise sample seemed deliberate. For most people familiar with his work, they were first introduced by way of his debut studio album Mista Thug Isolation, an 18 track journey into a horrorscape unseen since Three Six Mafia went by Triple Six Mafia and rapped about their mystic styles.

But MTI came out back in 2012, and Miller the musician has only been moving further and further away from the explicitly gory and grotesque bars of songs like "Maniac Drug Dealer III," now choosing to surprise us with something even more unsettling, his personal turmoil.

Donning the moniker bedwetter for his new project, volume 1: flick your tongue against your teeth and describe the present., Miller takes a slight step back from the mic, only spitting on a handful of tracks, but nevertheless presenting us with an eclectic range of sounds like the ones that initially turned me into a fan back in high school. Even though he'll have short verses on some songs, every verse comes at you steeped in his trademark pessimism, but now featuring glimpses of honest doubt and self-reflection, almost teetering on the verge of confession through rhyme.

The first time you hear him rap is on the second track "man wearing a helmet," when he immediately charges into a first person narrative of a child being kidnapped, thrown into a trunk by his captors and wishing to go back home. You can't tell how much, if any of it, is autobiographical, but I'll say this. The feeling of dread and terror described in that opening verse may be a perfect verse on Miller's part. In the same way that the boy feels completely ripped away and tossed into an unknown world, any listener of Miller will feel when encountering his music for the first time. It's an excellent introduction, to another wild and thrilling project by the man who was, and continues to be, an island.

Check out his latest project now on Bandcamp