Netflix's trippy new psychological drama series Maniac, from The Leftovers writer Patrick Somerville and True Detective director Cary Joji Fukunaga, stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill as two lost souls who gravitate towards the same three-day pharmaceutical trial. Along with ten other strangers, they are recruited to test a three-stage drug therapy that promises to completely heal their minds of anything - from mental illness to past trauma. As Owen Milgrim (Hill) and Annie Landsberg (Stone) descend into a series of elaborate dream worlds, they are forced to confront their worst memories and their own inner demons with the help of a sophisticated artificial intelligence called GRTA (Sally Field).
Maniac is similar to shows like Legion and Black Mirror in the sense that it's set in a world that's slightly removed from the real world. For example, the New York City skyline features a Statue of Extra Liberty (an angel holding a spear) instead of the Statue of Liberty, the streets are lined with adverts for strange services, and the scramble to make money in any way possible leads people to take jobs as an "adBuddy" or "FriendProxy."
Related: Watch The Trailer For Maniac
Within this slightly dystopian world, the drug trial features a series of dream worlds, ranging from a Tolkienesque fantasy to a sci-fi doomsday scenario, all of which are cobbled together using elements of Owen and Annie's lives and are populated by their family, friends, and passing acquaintances. Things get pretty strange, so let's explore the worlds of Maniac - both real and imaginary.
- This Page: The 'Real World' of Maniac
- Page 2: The Dream Worlds of the ULP Drug Trials
Maniac's Slightly Alternate Reality
As evidenced by the monochrome computers and dog poop-cleaning robots, Maniac is set in an alternate version of reality where technology is both less and more advanced than our own. Dr. James K. Mantleray's(Justin Theroux) date of birth is revealed as being 1977, so the show is set in the present day, but it's not quite the same present day that we know.
In Maniac's society, people who are strapped for cash can choose an alternative form of payment called "adBuddy," which means that they will be joined for some time for a person who will read them commercials that are very specifically targeted towards them. When Annie asks if she can cover the cost of a pack of cigarettes with an adBuddy, the teller declines, and tells her that adBuddy agents record all client conversations in order to gather data for the National Database of Desires. He admits that this is a conspiracy theory, but adBuddy that Owen uses to pay for his train ticket has information about exactly how much he spends on rent, and one ad specifically mentions the scenario of being put on furlough shortly before Owen is put on furlough, indicating that adBuddy knows even more about people's lives than they do.
AdBuddy isn't the only bizarre service that we're introduced to over the course of the first episode. There's also FriendProxy, with which people can order a person to be a stand-in for a friend whom they cannot, or don't want to, really meet up with - accompanying them on day trips, and even offering grand romantic gestures. One brand that catches Owen's eye is Daddy's Home, a volunteer service that offers a temporary replacement husband for recently widowed women. Broadly speaking, the world of Maniac is geared towards offering people a simulation of intimacy - whether it's a fake friend, or a virtual reality porn experience. For people who wish to escape their lives entirely, commercial travel to the moon is available, offering a new life in the off-world colony.
Annie and Owen
Owen Milgrim is the unloved son of a poop-cleaning robot mogul, who lives in the shadow of his sociopathic brother, Jed (Billy Magnussen). Owen has been tasked by his family with providing a false alibi for Jed, who is accused of sexually assaulting a female employee. Complicating his testimony, however, is the fact that Owen recently experienced a BLIP (brief limited psychosis), and may or may not be suffering from schizophrenia. He experiences hallucinations of another brother, who looks like Jed but has a mustache, glasses, and a different haircut. This brother tells Owen that he is the "Chosen One," and that he will save the galaxy. After being put on furlough, Owen signs up for a drug trial at Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech - where he meets Annie.
Annie is broke, unemployed, and has developed an addiction to one of Neberdine's drugs, which she scored off the son of researcher Dr. Robert Muramoto (Rome Kanda). When the drug runs out, she blackmails her way into the drug trial just so she can get another fix. Annie is clearly running away from something in her past, and the only family she has left is her father, Hank (Hank Azaria), who spends his time shut away in a sensory deprivation chamber in the back yard. She hopes that the drug trial will offer her a way to move forward - but the journey proves to be both heartbreaking and dangerous.