Film stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill made the leap to television on Friday, with the release of Netflix’s 10-episode dark comedy Maniac. (#PeakTV strikes again!)
Adapted from the Norwegian series of the same name, Maniac follows Stone’s Annie Landsberg and Hill’s Owen Milgrim as they participate in a pharmaceutical drug trial. (And, as we already know from the trailer, things get pretty trippy once the testing begins.)
Episode 1, though, offers up a whole bunch of exposition before Owen or Annie pop a single pill — and based on the events of the premiere, it seems like both of these characters could use a little break from reality.
Maniac‘s first installment focuses mostly on Owen, who is clearly the black sheep of a wealthy family that I suspect would get along famously with Succession‘s equally rich (and equally dysfunctional) Roy clan. Owen’s father runs a massive company called Milgrim Industries, where all of Owen’s obnoxious, WASP-y brothers now work — including his sibling Jed (Billy Magnussen, The People v. O.J. Simpson), who is about to go on trial for a crime that’s only vaguely alluded to during the course of the premiere.
Whatever Jed is accused of doing, Owen is going to help him clear his name by supplying a fake alibi: He’ll lie on the stand and say he was with Jed on the night of That Undisclosed Incident, all but ensuring Jed will be found innocent.
Owen, though, has a history of mental illness — he was hospitalized for a “psychotic break” a decade ago — and his family is understandably worried that Owen’s issues will rear their ugly head during his testimony. “Do you know what is real?” Owen’s father asks him during trial prep, to which Owen responds, “A hundred percent.”
That, of course, is a lie. Not only does Owen still have trippy hallucinations, like earthquakes that aren’t really happening or bird seed transforming into popcorn, but he is often visited by a version of his brother Jed that doesn’t really exist. Imaginary Jed comes to Owen from time to time and assigns him secret missions to save the world, and Owen has started to really believe that he’s going to be the galaxy’s savior. Owen has already been to a psychiatrist about these visions; in fact, he still rewatches an old therapy session that his doctor recorded, which he was instructed to listen to whenever he starts feeling paranoid again.
Despite his best efforts, though, Owen can’t seem to get his grasp on reality, and he is visited once again by Imaginary Jed, who says that Owen will be contacted by a female agent soon, and she’ll have further instructions for him. “The pattern is the pattern,” Imaginary Jed repeats throughout the episode, a phrase that currently holds no real meaning but apparently will down the road.
All of this takes place in a bleak, future version of New York City, where people are relentlessly advertised to — like, even more than we are right now. If the flashing, talking billboards aren’t annoying enough, there’s also a system in place called Ad Buddy: Don’t have enough money to purchase that thing you want to buy? Just use Ad Buddy, and instead of paying, you’ll just have to sit in silence while someone literally follows you around and reads an endless stream of advertisements to you. Fun!
Owen is eventually contacted by Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech, which is running a series of drug trials and believes Owen would be the perfect candidate to participate. (This kind of participant is called a “hero candidate,” actually, which only serves to cement Owen’s belief that he’s going to save the world.) When he arrives at NPB’s testing facility, he meets Annie for the first time — and he’s a little puzzled, because he’s already seen Annie in two upper-class advertisements that week, but in real life, she seems frazzled and down on her luck. (“I’ll kill you. I have a gun,” Annie warns Owen when he tries to talk to her.)
But it turns out that Annie and Owen are going to be part of the same trial, and Imaginary Jed visits Owen once more to tell him that Annie is his handler for his super-secret mission. So, naturally, Owen approaches Annie once they’re brought to the trial and asks her what his instructions are. She still doesn’t act as though she knows him, and she’s annoyed that he’s still talking to her — even after she threatened to kill him. But when Owen starts to spiral into a panic, giving paranoid glances over his shoulder and repeating, “The pattern is the pattern,” Annie stops him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Owen, your instructions are to go back to your pod and await my signal,” Annie says, and Owen looks relieved. “I’m going to save the world,” he tells her, seemingly looking for confirmation. “Yes. You’re going to save the world,” she responds. “But not if you blow our cover.”
When the doctors who are running the trial enter the common area where participants are being held, they inform the candidates that “you made the right choice. It’s time to start your lives again.” And Owen, now believing that Annie is part of his mission, stares at her longingly.
OK, your turn. What did you think of Maniac‘s first episode? Grade the premiere in our poll below, then hit the comments to back up your choice!