Netflix’s Maniac

By Shamus Posted Sunday Oct 14, 2018

Filed under: Television 36 comments

Today’s late post was caused by Maniac, the Netflix original series that released this month. Last night I planned to write a post to fill this space, but instead I binged my way through 9 of the 10 episodes of Maniac. I only stopped because it was nearly dawn, I was up about 6 hours past my bedtime, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I polished off the last episode as soon as I got up.

This is a surprise, because…

  1. I’ve never been a fan of Jonah Hill. He’s been typecast as a crass selfish jackass, and after watching a few of his movies I started to cringe every time I saw him.
  2. I’m usually very picky about my genre blends, and I would never expect bleak cyberpunk to mix well with dark comedy and lighthearted feel-good affirmation. That sounds like pickles and ice cream to me.
  3. Over the last few years I’ve given up on Netflix series. Netflix has a terrible habit of taking a two-hour idea and turning it into a ten-hour miniseries, and I usually find the result intolerable.
  4. I’m usually really annoyed by “malfunctioning AI” stories. I hate it when writers have people build a computer that accidentally acts like a human with stereotypical human desires like romantic love or daddy issues, as if a computer bug could cause something as complex as a human psyche.

And yet somehow the whole thing worked for me.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.
Jonah Hill and Emma Stone.

Jonah Hill shows off quite a bit of dramatic range here. He plays a lot of different characters and none of them resemble the backward jackass he’s known for playing. This reminds me of the movie Truman Show, when I learned that Jim Carey was a serious dramatic talent and not just a clown with a gift for wacky faces and physical comedy.

I don’t know why this genre blend works for me. The story has moments where it inhabits this world of dark comedy and dystopian absurdisim in the style of Terry Gilliam. Then it changes gears and tries to be a quirky indie drama about a couple of neurotic millennials and it feels like Michael Cera is going to walk into frame at any moment. Then it goes back to the cyberpunk stuff again. You’d think this would feel like shifting genres without a clutch, but it’s totally seamless.

The malfunctioning AI is only part of the story and there are in-universe reasons for why it might behave in this preposterous way. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t bothered by this worn-out trope of AI gone wrong. The other thing that helped things is that Maniac takes place in a strange world that blends near-future and obsolete technology. It’s a bit like Archer, where you have smartphones mixed with punchcard era computers. It gives the world a timeless quality and makes it fantastical enough that I’m able to let go of my real-world expectations. I can buy into the outlandish premise without stopping every couple of minutes to shout, “THAT’S NOT HOW COMPUTER MEMORY WORKS. YOU IMBECILE.”

I’ll admit it did suffer from a bit of the Netflix mid-series slump. I had to skip a few bits here and there that were obviously irrelevant. But this is better than Netflix mainstays like Daredevil, Luke Cage, or Ozark, where I found myself skipping through entire episodes of empty filler and repeated plot-points. I don’t know if Netflix is getting better as a whole or if this tighter editing is localized to this project, but I’m really hoping it’s the former.

I should probably have gotten a full night of sleep rather than binge my way through Maniac, but I don’t regret my decision. Good show.


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36 thoughts on “Netflix’s Maniac

  1. The Rocketeer says:

    Is it Manic or Maniac, Shams?

    1. tmtvl says:

      Clearly a typo, should be ‘Sanic’.

  2. Syal says:

    Did the same thing myself a couple weeks ago. One reason the crazy AI works is because you start by meeting the crazy scientists who built it. So you expect everything to fall apart before anybody mentions a computer.

    Although I spent a bit of it thinking they missed some opportunities. The art gallery in particular didn’t have a single armpit.

  3. Redrock says:

    Huh, That’s surprising. Both seeing this post and getting a positive evaluation of Maniac from you. It seems a lot of the reviews are quite tepid. As for Jonah Hill, sometimes that typecasting of his leads to great results – I recently saw War Dogs and he is fantastic in it. It’s the same “crass selfish jackass”, but also a sociopath and a master manipulator with a few layers to him, and it works beautifully.

  4. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    Strongly agree with all of this, including my surprise at Jonah Hill being actually good for something. I had trouble keeping up with the first two episodes mostly, but after that I was along for this formica punk ride!

    1. Echo Tango says:

      My head-canon for the mix of technology, is that Maniac takes places in the far future, and all the old-style technology is because of hipsters. Old-timey computer interfaces that hook up to modern supercomputers, “because blinking lights and binary just feels like a more authentic computing experience, man”.

      1. Droid says:

        – “I know I can get that 10000-digit number decomposed into primes in an instant, but it feels so much more rewarding if I ‘mine’ it like they did in the olden days.”
        * “That’s NOT what ‘min…’ ”
        – “Sshhh, if you demoralize it, it will lose its magical quantum entanglement!”
        * “AAURGH!”

  5. Rymdsmurfen says:

    That’s funny. I just watched episode 6 of Maniac, and the first thing I do after that is browse to your blog to see if there’s a new post. And then the Maniac poster pops up! That confused me for a second… :-)

  6. Horbus McCleary says:

    The title is an awful pun on ENIAC and now you are all burdened with this terrible knowledge.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Please tell me that it’s pronounced “Meanie-aack”

  7. Steve C says:

    I wouldn’t have even given this show a chance due to Jonah Hill. I will definitely watch the first episode now.

    1. Steve C says:

      Followup: I regret this decision.

  8. Joshua says:

    “This reminds me of the movie Truman Show, when I learned that Jim Carey was a serious dramatic talent and not just a clown with a gift for wacky faces and physical comedy. ”

    Then you really need to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind if you haven’t done so already.

    1. Liam O'Hagan says:

      100% agree here.

      1. Kylroy says:

        I really prefer him in Eternal Sunshine. The Truman Show was good, but Carrey’s character ther felt like a more pleasant, human-scale version of the over-the-top loon he’d become famous playing. Eternal Sunshine has him playing a quiet introvert who couldn’t be more different than Carrey’s previous roles.

        Also, ESotSM has Kirsten Dunst in the best role of her career.

        1. Gotta say, I am absolutely HATED Eternal Sunshine (and knowing Shamus’ taste and which movies we both like and which ones we both hate, am pretty sure he would to. We also both loved Truman Show.) I can see why people like Eternal Sunshine but it just, I just hated them all. (I did watch the final episode of Maniac with Shamus and it reminded me so much of I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK that I expected a similar ending.)

  9. Dreadjaws says:

    But this is better than Netflix mainstays like Daredevil, Luke Cage, or Ozark, where I found myself skipping through entire episodes of empty filler and repeated plot-points.

    When you say “skipping” you mean “mentally checking out”? Because otherwise how can you just know an episode is going to have those things if you skip them? Do you read synopses and assume that’s going to be the case? Do you fast forward to the middle of the episode to see if there’s something repeated and then skip the whole thing? How do you know you’re not missing on something important or interesting in the middle of skipping something that looks uninteresting?

    I’m not trying to tell you how to watch a show, obviously; I just find this extremely curious, because I never heard of anyone doing that. I mean, I understand skipping a side quest on a game if it sounds like it’s going to be boring or irrelevant, or skipping a movie or book in a shared universe if you’re not interested in the subject at hand, but skipping parts or whole episodes of a non-anthology TV show? Now, if you tell me “I’ve already watched this and I know this part is irrelevant” or “It’s clear from the start that it’s going to be a clip show” then I understand perfectly, but otherwise I’m genuinely puzzled.

    Or, are you telling me that this, effectively, is an anthology TV show and I’m overreacting to this whole deal? Maybe I’m just misunderstanding the context, I don’t know, I haven’t watched it.

    1. silver Harloe says:

      I don’t know how it works for Shamus, but for me it consists of watching the first minute of a scene, realizing the characters are about to engage in something repetitive, and alt-tabbing to another window to do something interesting until I hear different voices.

    2. Shamus says:

      I was actually skipping entire scenes. Like, “Oh, these two idiots are having the same conversation they’ve had for the last three episodes. SKIP.”

      As Luke Cage dragged on, I did this more and more, and yet I never found myself in a situation where I was saying “What? I don’t understand what’s going on.” And even with my aggressive skipping, I still wound up sitting through a lot of scenes that went nowhere. You could easily remove half of the first season without losing anything. It might even be possible to eliminate two-thirds of it. There were entire episodes that had maybe five minutes of real plot development in them.

      1. Joe Informatico says:

        It feels like a holdover from ye olden days of broadcast television when you wanted to remind your audience what they last saw a week ago, or bring new viewers up to speed (and for whatever reason you didn’t use a “Previously on…” montage). I remember watching the last season of Angel on DVD a while back, and the first five minutes of every episode had two characters talking about what happened in the last couple episodes, and thinking “this was probably less annoying when I was watching these a week apart instead of a half-dozen in a row.” (And Angel and Buffy made heavy use of the “Previously on…” montage–I don’t know why they had to do this in the first place.)

        But I have no idea why it’s still used today, especially on these Netflix originals that drop the whole season on you explicitly for the purposes of binge-watching. Are they trying to hit some kind of minimum episode order for later syndication purposes? Later physical media releases? Are they planning for potential future broadcasts somewhere in the world? Is there some minimum number of episodes below which it becomes economically untenable to even make the series? Do they think the audience is too dumb to understand what’s going on if they don’t repeat it at least once every two hours?

        1. INH5 says:

          My guess is that it’s Netflix attempting to pad out their library as the streaming rights for popular movies increasingly dry up and Hulu continues to poach popular TV series. The problem is that they don’t have nearly as much money to spend per season as even cable networks have, which is made even worse when a series uses an expensive adaptation license and/or stars a big name actor. When you try to make a 13 episode series with only enough money for 3 episodes worth of cool stuff, the inevitable result is lots and lots of filler.

          A side note on the movie streaming situation: A few days ago, I actually signed back up for Netflix’s original disc-through-the-mail service after one too many times when I thought of a movie that I wanted to watch and then found out that the only ways to watch it were to pay $4 or more for a streaming rental, buy a physical copy outright, or check out a DVD from a library and live with the lower video quality. Is it too late for video rental stores to make a comeback?

      2. SiriKeet says:

        You might enjoy The Good Place then. That show’s plot is moving at supersonic speeds.

      3. Joshua says:

        What, you didn’t think Luke Cage was absolutely amazing? Everyone else said it’s just an awesome show!

        /end mock disbelief

        This was one of those shows where I just don’t get the hype. My wife and I watched the first episode, thought it was very slow, but decided to give it another chance and gave up after the second episode. It’s very atmospheric, and the acting was decent, but the plot was moving at a snail’s pace. Aha, Luke Cage is *finally* going to be a superhero now that we’ve got two minutes left in the episode. And then the second episode starts, and he’s back to just trying to keep his head down and avoid attention.

        At that point, I went to IMDB to see if got better, and a whole lot of people were saying it was good in the first half, but then Cottonmouth dies and the show goes downhill. Already I’m not terribly thrilled, and I can look forward to the show having a drop in quality halfway through the season? I’m out.

        As someone else here said, it’s really like they’re trying to stretch what could be 1 or 2 movies into an entire season.

        1. djw says:

          Yeah, they killed the most interesting character less than half way through. The main antagonist in season one is (IMO) pretty awful too.

          I’m about 2/3rds of the way through season 2 right now, and I think that its better than season 1. Still a good deal less interesting than either season of Jessica Jones though (again, IMO) mainly because Luke Cage himself is kind of dull.

  10. Dev Null says:

    This reminds me of the movie Truman Show, when I learned that Jim Carey was a serious dramatic talent and not just a clown with a gift for wacky faces and physical comedy.

    Yes. Shame he almost never did it again.

  11. Allan says:

    I use netflix a couple times a week and I’ve seen the big flashy poster for Maniac up on the front page constantly when I land, and in the trending sections and stuff with the little netflix logo on the panel to say they were involved with it and the declaration that it was a 99% match.

    So obviously, as any rational person would, I avoided it like it was the plague up uptil now.

  12. Alecw says:

    Shamus, I am very curious if you enjoyed Altered Carbon?

    1. Syal says:

      I’ll say I liked Maniac a lot more; both of the shows are pretty meandering, which is a lot more tolerable in a comedy than a drama.

      Altered Carbon was okay, but has so little attachment to reality that you eventually just have to start watching for the sake of the weirdness. (They really should have led with episode 7, at least then there would be a recognizable conflict.) Then there’s aggressive amounts of nudity, tech inconsistencies, moral lapses, and stuff like trying to make a short pudgy man be a physical threat.

  13. ccesarano says:

    Season two of Iron Fist was only ten episodes, which certainly helped. I was so worried when everything was wrapping up that they were about to introduce a really, really awful twist that changed the villain for the last three episodes. Instead, it closed off nicely, save the final thirty seconds that were just the most awful thing that ever awfulled.

    But the series is canceled now so hurray! I don’t have to care! Looking forward to Daughters of the Dragon to replace it.

    Anyway, original point of this post was to say that it’s possible Netflix is learning they don’t need to make every show 13 episodes like broadcast television does.

  14. GoStu says:

    I’ll give this series a shot then. It’s interesting though, how Netflix seems to often miss the “right” length for a series.

    Luke Cage is one movie’s worth of idea stretched into a series and shows its excessive padding.
    Bright was an idea that had a series in it, but bore huge scars from being rushed as hell.

    Every once in a while they manage to make it click (I love Stranger Things) but it seems like their batting average isn’t great for their original ideas.

  15. C__ says:

    Ok, here goes the really important question about this show: someone ever says “She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor (I sure know) and she’s dancing like she’s never danced before” anytime during the show?

  16. Stephen Hayes says:

    I heard an interesting explanation for why Netflix shows drag on so badly. Supposedly, the company culture is big on maximizing engagement: the number of hours your users spend on the site consuming content. From this perspective, ten hours of mediocre meandering that gets 20 million viewers is twice as good as 2.5 hours of tighly paced awesome which earns 80 million viewers. Even if it might not be best for the company, if #engagement is what the execs care about, it’s how you get promoted and thus what a lot of employees will do.

    1. C__ says:

      But that’s awful for the company on the long run. Ok, they got me on ten hours of mediocre meandering once, eventually i’ll enter in Shamus mode (“Oh, a Netflix original show? Probably sucks anyway, i’ll check it later… or never”)

  17. PPX14 says:

    Your description of Jonah Hill’s redemption as an actor might have convinced me but then I saw Emma Stone.

  18. Zagzag says:

    I have no idea who any of the people involved in this show who are apparently so disliked are, so I decided to give it a go. That was a lot of fun, thanks for the recommendation.

    As for the show itself: I’m not quite sure how I feel about the message of the final episode apparently being “seeking professional help for mental health problems is bad.” It could be that I’m reading something into it that wasn’t intended to be there, but it felt strange to end on that tone when most of the rest of the final episode seemed to be showing Owen genuinely trying to get the help he needed.

    In any case I had a good time making my way through it, even if the ending left me more confused than anything.

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