After the Emmy award-winning television show “Stranger Things,” Netflix studios has consistently cranked out movies and television shows. They are either tremendous successes or flops … and the jury is still out on their most recent endeavor: “Maniac.”
“Maniac” is a dystopian reflection of the near future, critiquing the opioid crisis and the social media induced mental health crisis in the Western world. If those two topics weren’t enough, “Maniac” also calls attention to the invasive, aggressive ad exposure people in the United States experience daily.
Though Wired said it is “The most Netflix-y Netflix show yet … in a bad way,” describing it as a “pricey, claptrappy, long-form Iowa Writers’ Workshop application,” I, however, disagree. I think we need it … and we need it now. It does what no other dystopian story has done yet in a way that is sickening, creative and gut-wrenchingly, blisteringly sad, especially the first episode.
Austin Ellis, John Brown University senior digital cinema major said, “the production value is very good. I’m pretty nitpicky. It kind of seemed like, rather than parodies, it’s pastiche. They’re trying to alleviate tension and not make it a stereotype.”
The pastiche nature is in the details. The world of “Maniac” is over the top. A Russian tour guide leads people through the streets of New York pointing out the “Statue of Extra Liberty,” a gold giant wielding a sword. A rainbow plastered concrete building that is over 100 stories tall is the centerpiece of the New York City in this alternate world. It houses the Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech facility that is developing pungent drugs to help regulate people’s emotions.
Jonah Hill and Emma Stone—an unlikely, chemistry-void combination—pair up as main characters Owen and Annie. Owen is depressed, so depressed it made me physically sick watching how unhappy he is with his life. He is one of five brothers who are polished, acapella performers living in their mid-century, stiflingly well put-together home. His brothers work for Milgrim Industries—his father’s multi-million-dollar company—but Owen refuses to join his family’s business. They despise him for it, refusing to paint him into the family portrait that is the center piece of their home.
Owen pays “87.2 percent” of his measly income on his apartment, leaving him no money for even the smallest luxuries such as riding the subway. Thus, he has to use an “ad buddy” for his transportation needs. “Ad buddies” will pay for whatever you need from them in exchange for you sitting through them showing you physical advertisements for an assortment of goods and services. Owen receives occasional visits from his brother Jeb, but no one can see or hear Jeb besides Owen because Jeb doesn’t exist. Owen, in his unstable mental state, has invented Jeb to help him cope, and his fictional brother assures him that there is a pattern to the world, and that Owen just needs to find the pattern to save the world.
Then there’s Annie. Her striking bleach-blonde hair sticks out like a sore thumb in the dingy streets of New York City. Annie has sold the rights to her face to a major ad company, and viewers see her smiling and glowing on billboards and computer screens. This is a facade, however. It’s obvious from the moment she appears in person on the screen, her face is taut and bitter, and it is obvious she carries heavy mental and emotional baggage. Her mother left her, she had a terrible fight with her sister and they haven’t reconciled and her father never speaks to her. Annie is a closed-off character that is hard to relate to, and she is addicted to a strong drug that induces her into a dream-like state where she re-lives the worst day of her life—and she loves it. She loves it because the person she cares about most in the world, her sister, exists in her dream state but nowhere else.
The two, both desperate for money, enter a high-risk pharmaceutical experiment trying to create a drug that takes away all negative emotions, and that’s when the story gets hard to grasp as each episode then hops from genre to genre in each character’s drug induced dream states. Yet, the satire is meaningful and undeniable.
Ads bombard people for 1.6 hours of the day, according to MediaPost, whether they like it or not. Ad buddies are like the cookies that clutter peoples’ feeds, jumping off the screen and sitting next to you on a subway. The highlight reel that is social media has caused a spike in depression, and while seeking help is good, people often try to null their emotions completely instead of learning how to cope. The show is a challenge to the Western world to realize that people are hurting, broken and addicted to terrible coping mechanisms. It’s a wake-up call to the Western world’s needs, and it brings life to all three issues it takes on, showing the blind spots in American society’s methods of approaching all three.