Netflix’s latest original series Maniac is a wild ride that viewers either resist or completely give into.
Led by Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, the dark comedy follows two broken strangers as they take part in a questionable but well-paying pharmaceutical trial. A pill transports Annie (Stone) and Owen (Hill) to alternate realities. They share other lives, simultaneously connecting and confronting inner demons.
While Maniac oscillates between dreams and reality, it is set in a New York similar enough to present day NYC to be unsettling. The 10-part series based very loosely on a Norwegian project of the same name. However, the original follows the vivid delusions of a man in a psych ward. According to Digital Spy, creator Cary Fukunaga said, “There is nothing from the Norwegian version, I think, in our show, other than the idea that there’s delusions, and the themes of loneliness and connection.”
Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beasts of No Nation) created the series in collaboration with Patrick Somerville (The Bridge).
How the Show Came to Be
In an interview with GQ, Fukunaga described how the series was developed in an unconventional way.
“Emma was the first person I spoke to about the show, and then that very same night, we ended up speaking to Jonah. Because I was friendly with Jonah, and Emma mentioned that they had always wanted to reunite since Superbad.
“So we called up Jonah, pitched him a story… [we said] that we had no idea what we were doing, but that we would all work together, and it’d be [about] delusions, and it’d be a lot of fun. He said yes, and that was it.”
Both stars signed up for the project over the phone, without an existing script. Fukunaga adds:
“It was a logline. It was a sentence. So once Patrick came on board and really developed it in the way that he did, it was a bunch of moving parts that came together.”
The writing process involved a lot of revisions. Fukunaga also described how at one point, they discarded half of the scripts and started from scratch. Why?
“The whole joy in this is to be able to play with different worlds and we’re not doing that. So we need to figure out a way to make that happen.”
They did, however, have some additional guidance in the form of Netflix’s unique development process.
“Because Netflix is a data company, they know exactly how their viewers watch things… They can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving. It’s not like, Let’s discuss this and maybe I’m gonna win. The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day. So the question is do we want to make a creative decision at the risk of losing people.”
Emma Stone plays Annie Landsberg, a woman deeply affected by strained relationships with her mother and late sister.
Jonah Hill plays Owen Milgrim, who belongs to a well-to-do family. Jonah suffers from a mental health disorder and possible schizophrenia. His brother Jed, played by Billy Magnussen (Game Night), appears in visions and assigns secret missions.
Justin Theroux (American Psycho) plays Dr. James K. Mantleray, the inventor behind the Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech (NPB) experiment. He believes his treatment can cure all illnesses. He also suffers from Paraphilia.
Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina, La La Land) plays the chain-smoking Dr. Asumi Fujita, second in command to Mantleray.
Sally Field plays Dr. Greta Mantleray, the world’s greatest therapist and Dr. Mantleray’s estranged mother. Field also voices GRTA, the supercomputer upon which the NPB experiment so heavily relies. Matters grow complicated when GRTA is programmed with basic feelings.
Creating Something Insane
Cast members revealed what it was like on the set of Maniac. Stone told Digital Spy how script changes made on the fly “definitely” created the feeling of an evolving narrative.
“It just felt like it was a breathing organism, a growing thing, which I think really helped the show,” said Theroux.
Showrunner Patrick Somerville adds, “One of the coolest things about Maniac, and hopefully you can feel it when you watch the show, is there is an improvisational vibe to what’s happening, because that was truly happening during production. Not just between me and Cary, but with the cast, with production designer Alex DiGerlando, with props and hair and makeup, people were all throwing ideas in. We were all trying to figure out, “What is Maniac? How does this work? What’s allowed here and what isn’t?” Collaboration needs conflict, but it also needs continued communication and resolution. I think you can feel it in the show.”
And what is Maniac? If anything, it’s difficult to define. The show zig zags unapologetically through space and time, delving into multiple genres—fantasy, noir, science-fiction—along the way. A retro-outfitted New York and pharmaceutical lab (resembling a spaceship interior styled by a Japanese decorator) become the most ‘normal’ settings. On top of that, episode lengths and formats are ever-changing.
Stone says that Maniac is “so absurd, in so many ways” which is where “relying on Cary and Patrick came in, in a huge way. It was just sort of trusting the process.
“I remember thinking, once a week, at least we’re really swinging for the fences! No matter how this turns out, I’m proud that we tried something big, and that it was bold and it’s unique. It was the joy of creating something original.
“For me, that was the most important part, and I loved that they wanted to create something so insane.”
Will there be a second season?
As Somerville revealed to The Hollywood Reporter, there are no plans to create a second season of Maniac. He also explains why:
“This was always planned as a limited series, and I think that’s another reason why we had the freedom to have a more hopeful ending. A lot of times on TV, you have to throw your characters into distress again near the end to buy the next season, and we don’t have to do that.
“It is a tremendous amount of energy and imagination to just to make a new show, and so you do have this feeling of wanting to hold on and keep using it, because there’s so much imagination in there, but I think part of why Maniac had that improvisational feeling along the way was knowing that this is it. Let’s do it now, because this is what Maniac is.”