Even though I’m prone to lamenting it, there are obvious benefits to our current surfeit of TV shows. For one, you never run out of things to watch and thus never really need to speak to anyone, unless it’s to discuss what you just watched. But one even bigger benefit that is becoming more and more obvious is how the people who bankroll these shows are becoming braver and braver in what they’re willing to throw money at. That’s becomes a ginormous benefit when you consider how the reverse is true of film studios. So, instead of watching the 157th Marvel movie this year or another remake of a remake, we get Maniac, a show that never would have got made ten years ago.
Maniac comes from the brilliant mind of Patrick Somerville, writer and producer on The Leftovers, with which it shares a lot of the same DNA. Both shows take outlandish premises and use them creatively to discuss simple, relatable human emotions like loss, grief, loneliness and love in deeply profound ways. The Leftovers might have been about the mysterious disappearance of two per cent of the world’s population, but it was really about learning to live with grief. Similarly, for all its weird mini poop robots, backyard incubator machines, chess koalas, ‘ad buddies’ and medical trials to eliminate sadness, Maniac manages to address crippling loneliness in a hugely affecting way.
Make no mistake, this is a deeply odd show. The minute Jonah Hill’s moustachioed brother (an utterly magnificent Billy Magnussen) literally vanishes into thin air, leaving behind spontaneously popping corn, it’s obvious that this is a different kind of ride. It’s often wonderfully silly (every beautiful, daft moment of Justin Theroux’s induction video) but its genius lies in never letting the silliness interfere with its humanity. Yes, the poop robots are adorably kooky, especially when Emma Stone sticks her missing dog poster to one, but that doesn’t lessen the impact when we learn why the dog is missing, who it belonged to and why she’s still looking for it eight years later.
I’d love to pin all of this on the performances, every single one of which is undeniably close to the respective actor’s best work. Hill and Stone are utterly marvellous (can we all just agree now that Emma Stone is one of her generation’s great talents?), Theroux has never been weirder or funnier and Julia Garner again brings up the question as to why she’s not a massive deal. But Maniac works because everyone is firing on all cylinders, from Somerville’s script – which flips from tragic to hilarious without missing a beat – to Cary Joji Fukunaga’s inspired direction. It’s weird, it’s wonderful and it’s Netflix’s best original series since Stranger Things. When you consider how much TV the streaming giant churns out, you’ll appreciate how big a compliment that is.
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