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…
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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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