For a while now I’ve been trapped in a perpetual desert of good television, which is all the more frustrating because I feel like new TV is coming out on the daily. So when I first heard of Netflix’s new series Maniac, starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, directed by True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga, I was extremely hopeful and extremely desperate. I had every reason in the world to be hopeful, all of the pieces were there: An A-list cast, a director I enjoyed, a huge budget, a high concept story — and yet I was disappointed. This show was branded as a “must see event,” and felt like it was going to be Netflix’s Next Big Thing. But it barely sustained a week’s worth of internet buzz, and hardly anyone seems invested enough to ask for a season 2. So what happened here?
I think this is yet another example of how having more money doesn’t necessarily equal better product, especially when it comes to artistic production. Just like I argued that Netflix should focus on making better shows, not more of them, I’m going to argue that a developed idea with a lower budget will produce a better show/film than a half-baked idea with a high budget.
So the basic premise of the show is relatively simple — two people (one depressed, one a drug addict) offer to try a new experimental drug that brings happiness. However, things go awry when the computer administering the drug develops human qualities, becomes depressed itself, and launches the two into shared hyper-realistic fantasies.
It’s not totally original. A lot of shows and films begin on the premise of “experimental,” which ends up being a catch-all for any problem the show might have. Oh, that part didn’t make any sense? Well it’s experimental art, you aren’t supposed to understand it. This is a big reason why I tend to stay away from anything with drug or dream sequences — I know it’s going to be a bunch of meaningless fluff in the place of story. And honestly, that’s kind of what happens in Maniac.
About halfway through its 10 episode run, Maniac looses all sense of a storyline and instead breaks into strange one off adventures in the dreamland. The change in format is jarring, because you always expect it go back to the main story, but it never actually does. The entire second half feels oddly unsupervised, like these were original pitch ideas that people liked, but they couldn’t figure out how to expand into a full series, so they ended up on the backend of an underdeveloped hallucinogenic drug plot.
Maniac attempts to make up for all of this with some fancy camerawork and interesting directional choices, but primed television viewers will quickly see through it. The artistic vision for the show is actually pretty cool, but it never gets any payoff. It feels like the work of a film student (with an exceptionally massive budget) who just watched a bunch of experimental directors who they were told were masters of the craft and tried to imitate it without understanding the purpose.
I don’t think everything in Maniac was bad. There were times when I was interested, and there were some jokes every now and then that I did laugh at (though, I couldn’t tell if these were supposed to be jokes or if they were just ridiculous lines), but I really couldn’t past my overall disappointment with the series.
This show felt like it was supposed to be really good and important, but then it failed to put in the work required to actually be good and important. Maybe my expectations were too high, but Netflix told me to have high expectations when I went into it. This is where I feel that more shows can learn from Stranger Things — nobody knew what Stranger Things was going to be (or what it was supposed to be) before it came out, so people went in with fairly blank slates. Likewise, the show creators weren’t expecting a prepackaged audience — they had to earn it all on their own. And they definetely did.
The point is, shows like Maniac are attention seeking, with flashy colors and big name stars, but ultimately devoid of any meaningful content. We need to get back to shows that are attention grabbing, and focus first on telling a good story.
TELL US: Did you see Maniac? What were your thoughts?