"Maniac," whose ten episodes begin streaming Friday on Netflix, is a big, weird, tightly controlled mess of a show. It swings for the bleachers and doesn't always connect — and when it does, it can seem to skip some bases or run them out of order. But it does keep swinging and running.
Starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, it was developed by director Cary Fukunaga ("True Detective"), and its primary screenwriter, novelist Patrick Somerville, from a Norwegian series, also called "Maniac," with which it seems to have little to do beyond mixing scenes of reality and fantasy.
From the beginning, it is a riot of conflicting tones — all the tones you can imagine — though its overarching mood is incidentally well-described by a character late in the series as "a low-level sadness that has this caring and sweetness underneath it." Love, loss, grief, fate, family and connection are its recurring themes, turned this way and that through overlapping realities and unrealities. It’s a place where even a computer can shed tears.
Hill plays Owen Milgrim, the last, least son of a wealthy family — he's missing even from their painted portrait — whose fortune seems to have come from little roving robots that clean excrement off the street. (This is not developed, but you see them throughout the series.) He walks gingerly through life, having experienced a psychotic break a decade earlier, though the family (with Gabriel Byrne as his father) are depending on him for a sort of favor. They don’t know that he is off his medication and getting messages, from a "facsimile" of his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen), that he is meant to save the world.
“All you need is a partner,” says Jed Not-Jed.
He imagines this partner to be Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone), whom he meets as he is applying to take part in a drug test involving "three pills, the most sophisticated computer ever developed … and powerful nonsurgical microwave technologies," that will lead its subjects through a series of revelatory dreams toward perfect joy forever. (In fact, he is doing it for the money.) Annie, another lost soul with her own smorgasbord of family issues, is there because she's become addicted to one of the pills in the test and is out to score some more.
These dream states, when they arrive, are represented as essentially (creditable) movie pastiches, including a Middle Earth-style fantasy, a postwar society heist, a sci-fi action comedy and a Long Island domestic adventure that 30 years ago might have starred Melanie Griffith and Alec Baldwin. I'm not sure why this should be so, other than they let Fukanaga (just announced as the director of the next James Bond film) show off, capably, in a variety of styles. None seem related at all to the baseline reality of the series, the waking, if alternative, New York City that the characters otherwise inhabit.
The setting is more or less contemporary, but in certain technological respects resembles the early 1980s; the phones are all landlines, the printers are dot matrix, there are floppy discs. But purple koala robots play chess in the park, and advertisements talk — sometimes, oddly, in the person of a human Ad Buddy, who reads commercials at you. Other services in this lonely town include Friend Proxy, a kind of escort service that pretends to know you, and "temporary volunteer mail-order husband," for a company called Daddy's Home.
Fukunaga has filled the screen with details you can't quite catch, unless you’re watching with a finger on a pause button. An extraterrestrial travel poster in a subway station asks, "Tired of here? Moonbeam: One way flights starting at $1,799"; a headline on a copy of the New York Post announces, "Bladdergate. Milgrim Poop Bot Empire in Peril"; a sign in a country gas station reads, "Leave to the nightingale her shady woods," which is a line from William Wordsworth's "To a Skylark." I can't say why that was there, and you don’t need to see it; but it wasn’t an accident.
At the same time, “Maniac” can be stunningly obvious in stating its intentions, practically drawing circles and arrows to highlight its metaphors. Indeed, it is old-fashioned even where it seems new-fangled -- throwing its jokes and ideas, its debts to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze and its “2001: A Space Odyssey” references into a big box that resembles a conventional romantic comedy, from the antagonistic meet cute onward, without exactly being a romantic comedy.
"Maniac" is such a wild mash-up of tones and styles and attitudes that the characters' emotional through-lines can get lost. The performances themselves can seem to come from different series altogether. Justin Theroux's Dr. James K. Mantleray, the inventor of the pharmaceutical protocol, is an overheated mad scientist with mother issues, who gets physical comedy to do. As his mother, a globally known pop psychologist, Sally Field acts from head rather than hips — though she too will appear in other guises, in other modes.
Hill is very good, though he has the disadvantage of being trapped for much of the series in a character with little affect, the engagement of a teenager at a dinner table. But Stone, an actress of alchemical gifts — she can turn lead to gold — is marvelous at every turn, in every version and inversion of her character. She finds emotional truth in the least likely moment, making us care about Annie in a way the series itself sometimes fails to.