Filmmaker Cary Fukunaga was recently announced as the next director to helm the “Bond” franchise. A daring, creative artist with an incredible track record (including the acclaimed first season of “True Detective” and Sundance darling “Beasts of No Nation”), Fukunaga uses his artistic genius to great effect in Netflix’s “Maniac.” Despite a massive budget and star-studded cast, however, the series offers little of note.
“Maniac” takes place in futuristic New York, one where capitalism is taken to an untenable extreme. Owen Mulgrim (Jonah Hill, “The Lego Batman Movie”) is a rather depressed-looking heir of an industrialist family, forced to testify in the trial of one of his brothers while suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations. Meanwhile, Annie (Emma Stone, “Battle of the Sexes”) is a fellow New Yorker, and the pair cross paths in a drug study conducted by a foreboding pharmaceutical company.
Not much else happens in the premiere. At the end of the episode, I still have no idea what the personalities of the characters are and the nature of the world they live in. Sure, everything is very pleasing to look at. This version of New York is dark and brooding (as almost every version of the future seems to be). The old computers contribute to a “vaporwave” atmosphere. The pharmaceutical company, headed by two Japanese doctors played by Sonoya Mizuno (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Rome Kanda (“The Informant”), is sleek and minimalistic, the familiar intersection of analog and digital. The city is filled with services that make Uber and Doordash seem completely primitive; here, you’ll find people whose entire existences are dedicated to pestering you about products, as well as services that provide replacement husbands for widows.
But beyond the pretty visuals, the pilot’s pacing is depressingly slow. Combined with the gloomy portrayal of the city, the 40-minute running time feels more like an hour. The prologue wastes Justin Theroux (“The Leftovers”) with a dreary narration of dross about amoebas and the big bang. Unfortunately, Hill’s acting also contributes to the glacial pace. He stays on more or less the same note throughout the entire episode. He’s not emulating the stoic melancholy of Ryan Gosling in “Drive,” but rather a flat sadness, a single monotone expression glued onto his face. Even though Owen faces a series of disturbing hallucinations, including a recurring fictional brother who tells him to watch out for a “contact” who will help him in his quest to save the world, Hill’s acting never lets the viewer see beyond the surface of Owen’s psyche.
Meanwhile, Stone has little to do during the pilot beyond popping up here and there to encourage Owen’s delusions, but her acting is miles more vibrant and compelling. The few bright spots of the episode are taken up by the other characters, including Owen’s father Porter (Gabriel Byrne, “Hereditary”) and other members of the WASP-y, brash Milgrim clan.
Hopefully, “Maniac” speeds up and delves deeper into the inner workings of the pharmaceutical trial where Owen and Annie meet. The world the pilot sets up is intriguing in its own right, especially in its depictions of the gig economy on steroids, and there is potential to be explored. However, if the pilot’s issues are not resolved, there is little chance that the series develops into more than an utter borefest.