The most striking shots in Netflix’s new series “Maniac” — not an easy choice to make, given how unusually filmed and how askew the show’s multiple fictional universes are — tend to be the ones in which Emma Stone is emerging from an exhausting stage of a drug trial. While she’s being interrogated about what she experienced, we see her in profile, staring down a nest of cameras positioned invasively close. When we see her straight-on, she’s drained of color and dwarfed by a wall of video feeds of her own face, surveilled from every possible angle like the prisoner she’s become.
Even as multiple simultaneous shots could expose a single false note, Stone — one of the defining movie stars of her generation — exerts supreme control over her character. She’s not just absent of vanity, but inventive and curious about what a performer can reveal, and how she can reveal it.
Under the guidance of “True Detective’s” Season 1 director Cary Joji Fukunaga, Stone and her co-star Jonah Hill mark career highs in “Maniac.” Created and written by Patrick Somerville, the beautifully made “Maniac” plunges viewers into a fictional world that’s both divergent from our own and instantly recognizable — and then reinvents itself several times over, skittering across time, space and genre to tell a story of connection that feels urgent and deeply, painfully human.
The plot is less baroque than one might suspect: Stone and Hill, strangers who share family trauma and an inability to go on in their daily lives, enter a trial for an experimental drug treatment intended to dredge up their worst moments and provide newly reconstructed defense mechanisms. As they move through what had been intended as controlled journeys through their respective minds, they find themselves recursively bonded on a dual quest, friends even as they can barely communicate in the moments they share while awake. A malfunctioning computer — a distant relative to “2001’s” HAL, perhaps, portrayed with similar eerie empathy — accounts for their endlessly finding one another, but there’s a sense, too, that these two are bound by something like destiny.
That the test is glitchy comes as no surprise. Early on, “Maniac” establishes a baseline tone of frisky, shabby oddity: We’re in a near future, or an alternate present, in a New York City that feels as close to the 1970s as it does to the 2020s. Stone’s blunt, hardened Annie dodges the rent and cadges quarters from malfunctioning newspaper boxes; she is also forced to speak with her father through the metal shell of his “A-Void” pod, a device meant to shield users from the outside world. And Hill’s Owen is a member of a wealthy family whose disregard for him feels, at first, like a ribald joke, until the extremeness of their abandonment of their mentally ill son sinks in.
But under the drugs’ influence, Annie and Owen find conditional sorts of empowerment; their shared fantasies include life as a hard-loving Long Island couple willing to live on either side of the law, and chic thieves in a 1940s noir. Perhaps Stone’s best bit of acting in the early going is as permed, openhearted Linda from Long Island, finally enunciating a truth that Annie couldn’t in her waking life. For Owen, who doesn’t trust his mind, it’s a trial to be endured until he can get away.
The two actors’ chemistry is emphasized by the degree to which they’re forced to tamp down their shared charisma. In movies, Stone has made her name on ebullience, and Hill is not far behind; both prove powerful TV presences as well, remaining eminently watchable as they introduce new skills. (Annie is fidgety and watchful; Owen looks away, unable to meet the gaze of the world, or even of his friend.) They bloom together in dreams and, returning to reality, are forced to meet with a more limited emotional vocabulary and test their relationship.
Fukunaga, who brought time-worn texture to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s partnership in “True Detective,” has outdone himself here. His previous big-ticket limited series dazzled with its heightened version of the Southern Gothic crime story; “Maniac” is a crescendo across genres that doesn’t stop building. The most useful comparison for “Maniac” may be not “True Detective” but “Westworld,” which refuses to be pinned down to a single subject or timeline as it makes painful points about human experience in times of great change.
Yet there’s little of “Westworld’s” chilly touch here. For all that Annie and Owen’s journey has been induced by medications that represent a nightmare humanity hasn’t quite imagined up until now, the futurism of “Maniac” doesn’t get in the way of its deep warmth, which extends throughout the series. In a subplot, pharma mastermind Dr. James K. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) endures challenging, complicated relationships with both his colleague (Sonoya Mizuno) and his mother (a superb Sally Field), a gifted therapist and terribly flawed parent brought into the experiment to save it and onto “Maniac” to deepen our sense of dislocation as a fundamental part of modern life. And Owen’s and Annie’s stories are drawn with careful attention to family dynamics. In Owen’s case, his life has been defined in opposition to a golden-boy brother (Billy Magnussen, emphasizing the notes of menace in his bluff, buff persona). In Annie’s, it’s been defined by certain absences, including a vexed relationship with her sister (Julia Garner) whose predictable unfolding takes nothing away from its emotional power.
“Maniac” was a big bet by Netflix; based on a Norwegian series that’s been little-heralded stateside and with tonal leaps and shifts in time and place, it is the sort of risk-taking show that seems perched on the knife’s edge of fiasco. Credit the streamer with producing the sort of series in which Emma Stone appears in one episode in hospital scrubs, another in gangster-moll drag and a third in an outfit that’s too good to spoil. But credit Netflix, too, with investing in a show whose tightness of narrative — 10 episodes, none much more than 45 minutes long, in a close-ended season — allows for exploration within constraints. Its power comes, in part, from its refusal to sprawl. As a trial of something new, “Maniac” passes every test, and ascends instantly to take its place among the very best TV of the year. Its eagerness to expose unexpected angles is its great gift.
Drama. Netflix (10 episodes, 10 reviewed), Fri., Sept. 21.
Executive Producers: Doug Wald, Michael Sugar, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Patrick Somerville, Emma Stone, and Jonah Hill
Cast: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sally Field, Sonoya Mizuno, Julia Garner, Billy Magnussen, Trudie Styler, Gabriel Byrne, Jemima Kirke, Rome Kanda