Netflix is about to break your mind again, and it is going to do it with the 10-episode limited series Maniac. Arriving on September 21, the show had every episode directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) and written by Patrick Somerville (The Leftovers). It is based on a Norwegian series of the same name (from 2014) and depicts two very lost souls (Emma Stone and Jonah Hill) entering a clinical drug trial. It may sound simple enough, but rest assured — this show is anything but that.
Some of the cast and crew gathered at The Paley Center for Media in New York City last night to discuss the new series, as well as give the audience a sneak peek at the first two episodes. In attendance were Fukunaga and Somerville, production designer Alex DiGerlando, and cast members Emma Stone, Justin Theroux, Billy Magnussen, and Julia Garner. SYFY WIRE was there as well, and though it's difficult to discuss the show without seeing all of it, we will maniacally do so anyway.
***WARNING: From this point forward, there will be slight spoilers for the first two episodes of Maniac. If you want to go in knowing absolutely nothing, go and sign up for a different clinical trial.***
The first two episodes mostly give you a sense of our two main characters, Annie and Owen (Stone and Hill). The reality that they live in is somewhat similar to ours, but not entirely— as Fukunaga said, their intention was to "present a baseline reality... it's our zeitgeist, but with slightly different technology." It's almost immediately clear what he means by this — the world inhabited by Annie and Owen is completely overrun with advertising. There's a way to pay for food and transportation using a service called "Ad Buddy," which involves someone with a briefcase full of personalized ads sitting and reading them to you while you eat or travel.
There's also a service called "Friend Proxy," which is pretty much a fake friend service, as well as a giant incubating chamber called "Avoid," for when you don't want to deal with the real world. Technology like this runs rampant in the first two episodes, and that's not even counting the very trippy world of the laboratory where the drug trial takes place. It's almost one part Legion, a dash of Blade Runner, a helping of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and around five additional servings of totally original stuff. It's a potent mix that draws the viewer in immediately.
Though the episodes deal with big ideas and high concepts, it's ultimately all about human connection. "We are lost without connection," Theroux says in the opening voiceover, and that looks like it will be the drive for all of the characters.
"The way we discover what's inside these people is a wonderful device to use," Stone said. The technological baseline is interesting, and there are definitely mysteries in play here, but once we get past the first few episodes it will be "more about nuances of what we are psychologically," she added. Somerville was quick to add that mystery sets things up, but that it does not define the show at all.
Fukunaga echoed this statement, talking about the ongoing dilemma of what to do with the show's opening moments. Instead of just diving into the life of Owen, Fukunaga wanted to get some of the bigger ideas into play right off the bat. The result is a crazy edit of images, complete with the voiceover from Theroux — it addresses the overall themes and gets right to their main angle. Fukunaga notes that the show is hard to pin down genre-wise, so the opening gives you some clues. Going further, he says, "Let's get to the bottom of loneliness." In this show, loneliness is a symptom of much deeper problems. Why we have it is one thing, how we get rid of it is another.Not only will this theme be front and center for the characters undergoing the study, it will be true for the doctors as well. As Somerville said, "Those who seek to cure are still suffering." This looks to be especially true of Theroux's character, a zany doctor who we barely get to see in the first two episodes. Despite that, it looks like Theroux has really dialed his "arch, broad character" (as he described him) up to 11, and he may have gone a little insane with him.
"His character would have entered the show on a jetpack," said Somerville, talking about what would have happened if he and Theroux had gotten their way. Fukunaga thankfully (or not thankfully, depending on your tastes) kept things in check. Stone also noted the strange nature of the show, saying she was drawn to it because "it was all there" on the page, and that she likes that the show "swings for the fences." Though she is known almost entirely as a film actress, it was the people involved (though her co-lead Jonah Hill was not present, Stone was sure to mention that she enjoyed working with her friend) as well as the challenge of it all that drew her in. To explore a character that deeply over that much time "lets you discover people in new ways," she said. She also coughed up some phlegm at one point, which Fukunaga let her spit into his hand. They seem like an adorably close group of people.
As for the days on set, Fukunaga likened the "makeup trailer discussions" about the arcs of the characters to "the kind of conversations you have on acid." He calls the entire team "the definition of mad scientists," saying that the shoot got more and more insane as it went on. Magnussen echoed this at one point, and gestured to Somerville and Fukunaga and said, "These guys are the maniacs!"
As for the best way to watch the series, Stone said she "binged it all at once." She added, "I liked bingeing it, but you have to commit." The effect that Netflix bingeing might have was not lost on Fukunaga, who even polled the audience on whether there was anyone there who did not have Netflix access. No hands were raised, but Stone joked, "Well, look under your seats!" anyway.
Though Fukunaga is thought of as a television veteran, he was sure to point out that this is only his second television series. When asked what his next movie would be, he didn't seem to have one lined up. As he said, "If someone hires me, I'm down!" (Editor's note: Fukunaga has since been announced to direct the next Bond film.)
If the remaining eight episodes are anything like the first two, we're sure that Maniac will lead to plenty more work for the talented Mr. Fukunaga. The show is almost as crazy as the characters themselves, to the point where Stone asked the audience, "Is this just, like, what the hell is going on?" It kind of was, but in a good way. When asked if she was insane to make the show, she gave a classic answer — "Yeah, but watch it. Please."
Maniac will unload a clinical trial of all its 10 episodes on September 21, only on Netflix. Clear some couch time, and book a proxy friend.