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Series / Maniac (2018)

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Owen: My doesn't work right.
Annie: No one's does.

Maniac is a 2018 Netflix original series created by Patrick Somerville and directed by Cary Fukunaga, based on the Norwegian series of the same name.

Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) and Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) are the subjects of a shady pharmaceutical trial. She struggles with relationships — namely with her mother and sister — while he's the scion of a wealthy New York family who may or may not be schizophrenic.

Brought together by Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), who claims his experimental medical procedure can cure every sort of mental disorder, it soon becomes clear that they may be in over their heads. Sally Field also stars.

Beware of spoilers

Maniac contains examples of:

  • All Part of the Show: Invoked example. At the very end of the program, the test subjects awaken from their final cathartic dreams — only to find themselves in the aftermath of the GRTA's death: the lights are flickering on and off, most of the electronics are offline, and medics are hastily patching up wounded orderlies. Despite all the obvious problems, Mantleray plays it off as though everything has gone perfectly, and given that only Owen and Annie know of Gertie's insanity, most of the subjects are forced to take him at his word in the absence of any other option.
  • Alternate Universe: It's set in modern times, but it is not our reality. As said by a narrator (Mantleray) over the first scenes, Hypothesis: All the worlds that almost were are just as important as the world we're in.
  • And You Were There: Once Owen and Annie move onto the second round of tests, characters in their scenarios are often modeled on people they encountered in the real world — however briefly.
  • Anime Hair: During his virtual reality porn scenario, Dr Mantleray is equipped with a particularly ridiculous-looking crown of hair rendered in deliberately crude CG.
  • Beauty Inversion: Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuno are both extremely attractive, but are given glasses and silly wigs to downplay their looks.
  • Blood-Splattered Innocents:
    • Crops up during the crime fiction scenario when Owen's father executes a man by drilling into his skull; Owen, the Token Good Teammate of the crime syndicate, ends up soaked in the poor bastard's blood.
    • Played for Black Comedy later in the same scenario during the showdown at the motel: Owen's police contacts end up getting shot by Jed, spraying Owen with blood and leaving him clearly paralyzed with fear; then the family consigliere bursts in and blows Jed in half with a shotgun, absolutely showering Owen with blood — much to his exasperation.
    • Later, in the science-fiction scenario, Ernie the alien is fatally electrocuted by a malfunctioning microphone, splattering the surrounding audience with blue slime.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer:
    • Dr. Muramoto is eccentric, volatile, and eventually revealed to be freebasing a mixture of the A and C pills. Plus, he's actually been carrying on an affair with Gertie. Despite his addiction, he remains mostly effective in his line of work, and shares a surprisingly insightful discussion with Annie concerning the nature of addiction and guilt. Unfortunately, his addiction eventually ends up killing him.
    • Dr. Mantleray suffers from extreme Mommy Issues, a self-defensive ego problem, and is a chronic masturbator with a technology-related paraphilia. Nonetheless, he's responsible for much of the project's current fixtures, from the therapy to the GRTA. However, his personal problems eventually got him kicked out of the project, and he's only allowed back when Muramoto dies.
    • Next to them, Dr. Fujita seems positively normal, apart from her chain-smoking habit, fear of the outside world, and worrying predilection for modifying the project without the consent of those involved, including programming the GRTA with empathy behind Mantleray's back and sneakily copying his mother's brain.
  • The Cameo: In the last episode, Annie's shut-in father turns out to be played by Hank Azaria.
  • Cassette Futurism: The setting is a modern-day alternate reality that appears to have branched off in the early 1980s. The Internet doesn't appear to have been invented and computing technology looks stagnant with small monochromatic displays running programming that looks like a Commodore 64 using old 5 & 1/4" floppy disks. However, what's achieved by these computers often far exceeds our current abilities. There are sanitation robots collecting trash on the street, chess-playing koala robots, and an Artificial Intelligence computer with the ability to scan, download, and manipulate the human brain. There's also a more immersive, yet graphically ancient form of Virtual Reality.
  • Central Theme: Loneliness and alienation. Owen is the black sheep of his family and has no friends because his mental illness sabotages his relationships and keeps him isolated. Annie is haunted by the deaths of her sister and mother, while her father has retreated into an isolation booth, leaving her no one to connect with. Fujita and Mantleray's relationship ended awkwardly, leading to Mantleray spending his time in virtual reality pornography. Society as a whole seems to be suffering from this, given the existence of Friend Proxy, a service in which actors will mimic clients' estranged friends so they can pretend to interact with them again.
  • Character Tics:
    • Fujita pushes her Nerd Glasses up her nose.
    • Mantleray flips and fiddles with his fake hair.
  • Chekhov's Gun: One drug scenario has Owen pretending to shop at a fur coat store where the manager asks if he's interested in a bulletproof fur coat. A few scenes later, the manager gets into a shootout with cops, and bullets bounce off the fur coat he wears.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: A distinct problem with both Dr Mantlerays.
    • Greta, a celebrated pop-psychologist with a particular emphasis on human relationships, made a complete hash of raising her son — to the point of lying in his bed and discussing her desire for suicide with him when James was only eight. Even when given a chance to reconnect with him, Greta refuses point-blank in favor of going on tour to promote her newest book. Also, she has James blacklisted in the pharmaceutical industry. For good measure, when given an opportunity to treat the GRTA — an AI directly modeled on her personality — Greta fails so miserably that Gertie is able to turn the psychoanalysis on her instead.
    • James has created a drug-based treatment that could theoretically make conversation-based psychotherapy obsolete; unfortunately, by the start of the series, he's been kicked off the program due to a boatload of personal problems he's unable to solve on his own. Worse still, he's created an artificial intelligence with personality problems that the treatment couldn't possibly solve — and through a moment of thoughtless insensitivity, he ends up driving her into a fit of chronic depression that nearly costs the lives of everyone in the program.
  • Crapsack World: The alternate reality setting of the show is more bleak than reality. Technology is more crude and yet more omnipresent. People have to hire "Ad Buddies" to read ads to them to be able to afford basic items. Alienation and loneliness is a Central Theme. People hire "Proxy Friends" to pretend to be their estranged friends they can no longer talk to. Blackmail can be legally purchased from a store in a strip mall.
  • Crapsack World, Escapist Sanctuary: In the face of the horribly undesirable real-world setting mentioned above, the virtual reality offered by the Neberdine drug trial becomes quite attractive to Owen and Annie, especially the latter, who's already addicted to the trial's "A" pill by the start of the story. This comes to a head when the GRTA, masquerading as an evil sorceress in the first "C" trial scenario, offers to grant Annie a permanent place in the dreamworld, though it will mean her body will be brain-damaged to the point of catatonia.
  • Creepy Twins: The GRTA's avatar in the scenarios is often accompanied by a pair of eerily-silent blonde twins. It turns out that they're actually McMurphys, previous test subjects who've been left effectively brain-dead in the real-world as a result of the trials, living on in the dreams as Gertie's puppets.
  • Critical Psychoanalysis Failure: Downplayed example. In the face of the GRTA's worsening depression, Greta Mantleray is brought in at the supercomputer's request in order to treat her; however, upon actually meeting her patient in the dream world, Greta's professional exterior begins breaking down very quickly, especially when Gertie points out that the depression she's suffering from is actually a direct copy of Greta's own deeply-hidden personal problems. Alarmed and upset, Greta descends to the level of openly insulting her patient — only for Gertie to turn the session around and start psychoanalyzing her. Freaked out, Greta ends the session and scarpers, prompting Gertie to throw her out the window.
  • Deal with the Devil: In the fantasy scenario, Gertie offers Annie the chance to live on in the dreamworld and abandon reality forever; having just been reunited with Ellie in the dreamworld, Annie accepts the offer almost immediately, being too afraid of loss to give up her sister again. However, it turns out that remaining in contact with Ellie wasn't part of the deal. Worse still, the deal would have almost certainly have resulted in Annie suffering critical brain damage in the real world and living on only as one of Gertie's entourage — if she hadn't ended up getting drawn back into contact with Owen in his final scenario.
  • Dramatic Half-Hour: Most episodes clock in at around 40-45 minutes, but the show is nominally an half hour.
  • Dreamville: During the B-Pill trial, Owen and Annie find themselves sharing a dream scenario in which they are a happily married couple living in the suburbs of Long Island in the 1980s; here, Owen (AKA Bruce) no longer has to live with his sense of crushing loneliness, while Annie (AKA Lynn) is no longer saddled with her anger and guilt. However, as with all the trials, the goal of this scenario is to confront their underlying psychological issues, so it's not long before the two of them are sent on a symbolic mission to rescue a lemur from a furrier...
  • Dysfunctional Family: Both Owen and Annie have difficulty with theirs, for very different reasons.
    • Annie's mother walked out on the family, the relationship between Ellie and Annie broke down right before Ellie's death, and Annie's father is currently a shut-in who refuses to leave his isolation booth.
    • By contrast, Owen's family is openly overbearing and vain, with Owen being left either isolated, suppressed, or downright bullied into playing along with the wishes of the family. Jed takes the cake in this regard, being only a few steps removed from outright psychopathy.
  • Foreshadowing: Muramoto is introduced passed out with his face pressed against his desk. He's later revealed to be addicted to A, which causes users to pass out.
  • Empty Shell: Certain previous test subjects have suffered terminal brain damage and have been left permanently catatonic as a result; around the labs, they're called "McMurphys". It's later revealed that the silent men and women serving Gertie in the dream world are actually the minds of the McMurphies recorded to the GRTA's archives and condemned to live on as her entourage.
  • Family Portrait of Characterization: The rich Milgrims excluded their Black Sheep son Owen from a family portrait.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: As adults, Ellie seems to have been the Responsible (“normal”) sibling to Annie’s Foolish.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus:
    • Dr. Fujita is seen drinking from a mug which bears the legend "I Can Read Your Mind And You Should Be Ashamed Of Yourself."
    • In the Long Island-based episode, Owen's and Annie's characters rescue a lemur named Wendy from some crooked furriers. In the final episode, Annie signs into the asylum where Owen is being held by pretending to visit "Wendy Lemuria." Their aliases in that scene are also Bruce and Linda Marino, their characters in the simulation.
    • A newspaper in the final episode reveals that the Milgrims made their fortune in part due to the sanitation robots around the setting.
  • A Glitch in the Matrix: Quite a few of the scenarios feature immersion-breaking elements that reveal the true nature of the setting and often cause their in-universe characterization to break down - some being more effective than others.
    • In the first of the B scenarios, "Bruce" discovers that the psychology book he's reading abruptly breaks the fourth wall and addresses him directly while discussing Olivia Meadows, "who you screamed at during your BLIP." However, he's distracted by a passing truck before he can remember that he's actually Owen.
    • Soon after, Lin has a breakdown and has a rant about her parents' divorce, not realizing that she's actually started referring to Annie's past.
    • In both B scenarios, Grimsson makes surprise cameo appearances, nearly snapping Owen out of the narrative.
    • During Annie's C scenario, "Annia" suddenly remembers who she really is when she recognizes Greg Nazlund ( the trucker who accidentally ran her and Ellie off the road) among Lady Nora's attendants.
    • The gangster scenario almost goes off the rails when Porter Milgrim casually raises the possibility that Owen is trapped in a malfunctioning simulation, before just as quickly returning to the subject of defending the family.
    • Owen discovers the truth of his first C scenario when he tries to jump out the window - only to discover that the street below is just a scale model populated by miniatures.
    • In the very last scenario, "Snorri" remembers who he is when the CIA agent removes a miniature implant from his body, only for the implant to transform into a piece of popcorn when it hits the ground - signifying a return of Owen's "popcorn problems."
  • Genre Roulette: Contains elements of Science Fiction, speculative fiction, medical drama, psychological horror, and black comedy.
  • The Ghost: The scenario of the C trial revolves around Ernie, a late alien who is described in detail. We don't see or hear Ernie in flashbacks except his purple hand taking a microphone.
  • Gold Digger: Greta lives with a young, handsome nurse/lover. Dr. Mantleray flat-out calls him a prostitute.
  • Homage:
    • The 'A' scenario, which has Owen and Annie star as a hapless 1980's Long Island couple, is one to Raising Arizona.
    • The visual style of Annie's fantasy sequence is obviously taken straight from the The Lord of the Rings film adaptation. Annie lampshades that the scenario is based on the fantasy stories that Ellie liked so much.
  • Horrible Housing: Both protagonists.
    • Owen Milgrim has been trying to live apart from his rich-but-neglectful family, but the rent in New York is so high that he can only afford a one-room apartment in a particularly depressing building - and even then the rent eats up most of his salary. As such, after losing his job to a long-term furlough, his worsening financial situation prompts him to take part in the Neberdine drug trials.
    • Annie Landsberg lives in a sharehouse, her room being a cramped, cluttered mess that she can barely keep in order. Though it at least looks a little more welcoming than Owen's apartment, it's still pretty dingy. Plus, Annie's addiction to the drug trial's "A" pill means that she's having trouble paying the rent as well.
  • Imaginary Friend: Owen has an imaginary brother called Grimsson, who looks just like his brother Jed except with a mustache. He's who Owen wishes his brother would be.
  • Imagine Spot:
    • Owen has a number of hallucinations, especially before he gets into NPB. Some involve the ground shaking and corn kernels popping on the ground - "popcorn problems," as Owen calls them.
    • When Annie is going cold turkey on A and looking at the bus terminal schedule, the departures all wipe away and are replaced with a giant A.
  • In Name Only: The only thing this series has in common with the Norwegian series it's supposedly based on is hallucinations that pastiche different genres. Everything else, from how these hallucinations work, to why they're happening, to where and when the two shows take place, is different. None of the characters from each version have counterparts in the other version, either.
  • Incest Subtext: Mantleray kisses his mother right on the mouth for an awkwardly long time, and also mentions her lying in his bed when he was a child.
  • Inconsistent Episode Lengths: The mini-series is split into ten chapters, with episodes of varying lengths; the longest runs to forty-four minutes, and the shortest just twenty-three. The show's creator explained that he liked the idea of the velocity of shorter episodes with the potential of longer ones if needed.
  • Incomprehensible Entrance Exam: Admission to the drug trials requires test subjects to participate in a strange and somewhat surreal test of their suitability for the experiments; it actually ends with the examiner asking the participants to look directly at her while she asks the final question - only to stare at them in complete silence for the next few seconds.
  • Isn't It Ironic?: Jed sings “Every Breath You Take” to his girlfriend during their engagement party. This is completely in line with the kind of person Jed is, of course.
  • Japan Takes Over the World: Somewhat downplayed, but in line with the general 80's aesthetic of the world, NPB is a Japanese megacorp whose employees, even the non-Asian ones, behave according to stereotypical Japanese mores (e.g., threatening dissenting subjects with "bringing shame and humiliation upon themselves").
  • Living Emotional Crutch: Annie and Owen become this to each other over time.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine:
    • In the caper scenario, the lost fifty-third chapter of Don Quixote supposedly causes the read to lapse into a coma and spend the rest of their lives trapped in their own fantasies. Both "Ollie" and "Gertie Neberdine" express interest in its powers, but it turns out to have been all a myth, much to their disappointment.
    • In the fantasy scenario, Gertie offers to allow Annie to live on in the dreamworld forever and never have to face the reality of her sister's death ever again. Despite Ellie's insistence that she has to let go and move on, Annie accepts the deal - unaware that it would result in her brain being damaged beyond functionality and leaving her personality trapped in the GRTA's virtual "collection."
  • Lunacy: In the seance story, the characters are gathered at some sort of seance to celebrate the moon's supposed mystical powers.
  • Magic Mirror: In the seance story, Arlie somehow uses a mirror as a portal to get to where the chapter is.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: While the ending seems pretty straightforward the mid-credits scene calls the nature of that reality into question. Are they still inside the GRTA? Did Owen's delusions about patterns and needing to meet his handler have some substance after all? Why would Annie's lost dog be traveling down the same highway, in the company of a disabled hawk riding a trash robot?
  • Meaningful Background Event: While sorting through a pile of garbage outside the Milgrim Industries building, Annie happens to throw a Rubik's cube off the pile before making a grab for the copy of Don Quixote; behind her, a not-yet-formally-introduced Owen can be seen picking up the cube just before he enters the building.
  • Meaningful Name: The Milgrim family is likely named to evoke the famous Milgram experiment that tested obedience to authority figures - especially given that Owen's obedience to his family in the face of Jed's increasingly indefensible behavior is constantly tested throughout the film.
  • Mind Screw: Inevitable with a premise such as this.
  • Missing Mom: Annie’s and Ellie’s mother walked out on the family when the girls were young.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The real trouble begins when Mantleray somewhat bluntly admits to Gertie that Dr Muramoto is dead; what ensues is a massive case of depression that threatens the lives of everyone in the project.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: In Owen's Mafia-based drug trip, Owen's appearance and even mannerisms seem to be inspired by the rapper Post Malone.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • The worst memories of the other test subjects, mainly because they're instructed not to discus them with one another. Subject #11 admits that she remembered losing her husband to a hurricane in 1999, but the others have nothing to say on the subject other than emotional distress.
    • Mantleray and Fujita allude to a "gala" incident that ended their romantic relationship and was implied to be part of why Mantleray was forced off the project, but it isn't expounded on.
    • When Owen and Annie peek into the other test subjects' final scenarios during their elevator trip through the GRTA's complex, they make very little sense and give no hint as to what kind of catharsis they might offer.
    • Whatever NPB is up to on the other floors of the research base; during the final episode, the elevator stops on one of the upper floors and allows a badly-wounded lab technician to enter, accompanied by distant screams. Dr Mantleray asks "Rumi, phase three? They're doing some remarkable work up there." And that's it.
  • Odd Couple: Owen is a timid and withdrawn man from a wealthy family, while Annie is an aggressive, assertive and cash-strapped woman. They form a bond through the course of the show. In the end, after a few exchanges outside of the trial, Owen wonders nervously how much they really know about each other, apparently just now realizing that they have little in common. Annie assures him that they're off to a good start.
  • One Character, Multiple Lives: The test subjects are initially forced to relieve the emotional trauma that made them suitable for the study, then they go further with their brains imagining hundreds of scenarios to assimilate and confront the trauma, to hopefully defeat it.
  • Other Me Annoys Me: Greta and Gertie have an adversarial conversation in which they attempt to psychoanalyze each other. Greta loses the contest of wills and retreats from the conversation.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: Owen and Annie seem to be going in this direction. While they lack Ship Tease moments, it's clear their connection to each other over the course of the drug trial is hugely important to both of them, and is certainly more important than any other relationship they're shown onscreen with.
  • Precision F-Strike: In the final scenario - made more notable by the fact that it's being spoken by an ambassador in the middle of a UN hearing.
    Banner: Gentlemen... looks like the Earth is fucked.
  • Robosexual: Dr Fujita regards Mantleray's VR porn addiction as this, angrily referring to it as "copulating with software." Dr Muramoto has a far more advanced case of this, having been carrying on an "inappropriate workplace affair" with GRTA.
  • The Schizophrenia Conspiracy: Owen is a diagnosed schizophrenic and has delusions that he will be contacted by a "handler" to help save the world from some unknown threat. Also, as a young man he had a breakdown and accused a girl he had a crush on of being a plant sent by his family.
  • Secret Test of Character: Some of the preliminary questions for the NPB trial are like this. The test ends with the interviewer telling the subject to look at her as she asks the final question, then simply staring at the subject for an uncomfortably long period of time. When Annie is called in to speak to Muramoto and he promptly dies, she believes it's just another test for a few seconds before realizing what happened.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog:
    • In the first scenario, "Bruce" and "Lin" take immense risks trying to rescue a captured lemur from the furriers, all so they can bring it to Nan's daughter Paula, as per her dying wish. Eventually, they manage to get Wendy the Lemur, but only after narrowly managing to escape being killed or arrested in Sebastian's shootout with the Fish and Wildlife Service; however, it turns out that Paula doesn't want Wendy - in part because Nan always made it clear that she loved the lemur more than her. Bruce and Lin are forced to return home... whereupon the cops arrive on the scene to investigate the theft and illegal possession of a rare animal in a suspected poaching case. Bruce takes the blame in full and is arrested.
    • In the second scenario, "Ollie" has to wade through a great deal of mystery and confusion in order to discover the treasure hidden deep within Neberdine Mansion, and ends up getting stabbed in the back by "Arlie" along the way. In the end, he gets his hands on the lost chapter of Don Quixote, only to discover that the treasure's fabled ability to trap the reader in a world of their greatest fantasies - what he really wanted from it - is completely fictitious.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Mantleray and Fujita refer to catatonic patients as "McMurphys," referring to the main character of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and his ultimate fate.
    • In the final episode, Mantleray and Fujita's unseen boss is identified by the subtitles as "Yoda".
  • Sibling Triangle: Owen has feelings for his brother Jed's fiancee Adelaide.
  • A Side Order of Romance: In the scenario where he is incarnated as a conflicted mobster, Owen imagines his college friend Olivia as a Girl Next Door-type waitress with whom he eventually runs away with.
  • Stylistic Suck: The NPB introduction video features Mantleray and Muramoto awkwardly interacting with crude visual effects.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: The lost 53rd chapter of Don Quixote, the MacGuffin of Owen and Annie's second scenario. According to the stories, anyone who reads from it will lapse into a coma and spend the rest of their lives imprisoned in a world of their fantasies. To the disappointment of both "Ollie" and the GRTA's virtual avatar, it's all just a myth.
  • Trapped with the Therapy Session / Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: In the final episode, Mantleray and Fujita end up unexpectedly sharing an elevator with a badly-burned lab technician from one of the other floors, on his way to the infirmary. Eventually, the silence gets too much for Mantleray and he starts discussing his relationship with Fujita, including the hysterical blindness he briefly suffered as a result... and in the background, the still-smoldering technician can be seen trying valiantly to ignore the conversation, until at last the doors open and he makes a break for it.
  • Working with the Ex: Mantleray and Fujita used to be a couple. Their sexual tension eventually boils over.
  • Your Worst Memory:
    • The A pill brings back the user's worst memory, allowing the treatment to eventually target the source of their trauma. Unfortunately, the trial requires the test subjects to relive the events of these memories first: most of them are extremely upset... except for Annie, who's been addicted to 'A' for quite some time and knows all about the symptoms, and Owen, who didn't take the pill at all - though Dr Muramoto later finds out and makes him retake the test. Owen responds with barely-repressed tears.
    • Overall, most of the traumatic experiences remain unknown, though the second and third episodes explore Owen and Annie's worst memories in detail: Owen was going to study with a girl he'd had a crush on for most of the semester, only to suffer a brief psychotic episode and become convinced that the girl of being a plant arranged by his family. Annie was on a road trip with her sister, and spent most of their time together hurting Ellie's feelings before finally getting into a fight while driving - resulting in their car crashing into an oncoming truck, killing Ellie instantly.