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The Productive Tension of ‘Maniac’

Talking to creator Patrick Somerville about the new Netflix show and its unorthodox path to the screen

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“It was built kind of backwards,” creator Patrick Somerville says of his new Netflix limited series Maniac. “But that was OK.”

Maniac is a show that aims to disorient and surprise, so it’s only natural it took a counterintuitive path to production. When Netflix first announced the show in 2016, the press release led with costars Jonah Hill, soon-to-be Oscar winner Emma Stone, and director Cary Fukunaga, who kick-started the trend of director-centric television with his work on True Detective’s first season. Somerville, a novelist coming off a stint on Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers, was revealed as showrunner seven months later—a stark inversion of TV’s traditional writer-first mentality.

But Maniac is not The Knick, where Steven Soderbergh’s kinetic, often showy direction could feel outright antagonistic toward the script. The final product exhibits no such schism between the story, which follows a group of patients participating in an experimental drug trial, and the presentation, which borrows heavily from sci-fi mainstays like Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, and Ridley Scott—at least in what Somerville calls Maniac’s “baseline reality.” “Every show is different, every show has its own creative genesis. This one, they just had unusual pieces in place up front,” Somerville reflects. “I fully expect that every show I ever make or create or work on in the future is gonna have its own signature of who hired who and who got there first.” Some might feel threatened by “the Wild West thing,” as Somerville describes the current TV climate. Others see an opportunity.

Maniac is adapted from a Norwegian series by the same name also available on Netflix. It’s clear what would appeal about the concept to a director who toggles between genres as disparate as a period piece and a Bond movie, or a movie star in search of a showcase. The original centers an asylum patient flitting in and out of fantastical delusions, the show’s setting and main character’s personae limited only by production budget and imagination. For a writer emerging from the wildly unpredictable universe of The Leftovers, in which cults worship Gary Busey and characters become secret agents in alternate dimensions, the draw of a blank slate was equally powerful. “They’re shows that thematically have a lot in common, but also imaginatively,” Somerville says. “The Leftovers was so great to me as a place to work because anything was possible. Imagination was valued greatly in pitches and in the storytelling. That’s why Maniac was the perfect thing to go to after The Leftovers was wrapping up. It still felt free. It felt like you could do anything.”

Somerville and Fukunaga first connected over a speculative script of Somerville’s called POTUS Robotus, about “a group of grad students who accidentally get a piece of artificial intelligence elected president, and get imprisoned by it.” The high-flying premise emerged out of a friendly faux-competition within the Leftovers writers’ room: “We had this ongoing joke called the Lindy Network, which was a pretend network that was run by Damon Lindelof. We would pitch joke shows to him to try to get green-lit on the Lindy Network, and they were kind of crazy shows. There was one called Hexagon that was about how the Pentagon actually had a sixth, secret side where they did hyper-hyper-secret ops.” Somerville committed to the bit by then writing the pilot for his would-be Lindy Network show, a gag that turned serious when his agent passed it along to Fukunaga, then looking for writers to help him turn a logline and cast into a 10-episode story. The two met on a Skype call during Somerville’s Leftovers lunch break, and the conversations proceeded from there.

As much as both men were attracted to the unlimited potential of a hallucinatory setup, there was plenty they knew they wanted to change—some of it logistical, some of it tonal. “We talked a lot about something we both agreed on, which was wanting to make a show that had a certain level of compassion and sensitivity to mental illness, as opposed to a show that views that as a source of humor,” Somerville says of his initial talks with Fukunaga. “Hence the shifting to the pharmaceutical [trial] instead of an insane asylum.”

Somerville and Fukunaga’s interpretation follows Owen (Hill) and Annie (Stone), two lost souls who sign up for an experiment out of different strains of desperation. Owen is a diagnosed schizophrenic facing pressure from his aristocratic family to lie under oath on behalf of his brother, who stands accused of sexual assault. Annie is an addict haunted by the death of her younger sister in a car accident for which she blames herself. Their dysfunction manifests in different ways—Owen is withdrawn and subdued, Annie is prickly and ferocious. Yet both have spent years in self-imposed isolation, and both have enough to gain (and little enough to lose) that they sign themselves over to Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech for a study with enormous risks and seemingly too-good-to-be-true rewards. By creating psychological scenarios in which to work out their inner demons, they’re told, the drug under review can “fix” them, and deliver the same result as years of intensive therapy in a one-time, prescribable, and most importantly, sellable dose.

Even before Owen and Annie step across Neberdine’s sterile, sinister doorstep, there are cues aplenty that their world is a stranger place than our own. For Somerville, details like a Statue of Extra Liberty or an ad service are more than just fun flourishes: “To me, in a show that has characters asking, ‘What is real?’ and a show that has characters accusing other characters of not knowing what is real, I thought it was very interesting to put the audience in that position a little bit as well.” There’s an element of late-capitalist dystopia—cash-poor citizens can sell their likenesses to corporations, to use as they see fit—as well as retro callbacks that throw off one’s sense of time. Cars seem decades older than they should be; the Maniac universe’s version of Skype involves an old-fashioned television held up by a human. “It’s our zeitgeist, but it’s a different history of technology,” Somerville clarifies. The goal was “to put pressure on the idea of what’s normal, and how do we end up on these square phones and our keyboards laid out in the way that they are. We take all of these enormous changes for granted and integrate them into normalcy so quickly.” One character’s normal is an audience member’s unsettling jumble.

Maniac kicks fully into gear once the trial begins and the viewer’s (minimal) training wheels come off. “There’s this modular thing about Maniac, where many different genres could work to do the character storytelling, the emotional storytelling, the psychological storytelling that we were trying to do with the arcs of Annie and Owen,” Somerville says. That freedom allows Maniac to be many shows at once: a high fantasy quest that calls on Stone to don prosthetic elf ears; an espionage thriller with Hill as an Icelandic diplomat and Stone as a Texas-twanged spy; a gritty crime drama that puts Hill in cornrows and a grill.

It’s a creatively exhilarating setup, but also a daunting one. A recent GQ profile of Fukunaga included the revelation that he and Somerville had junked half their scripts with just a few months to go until production, a large swath of the show that Somerville says corresponds with Owen and Annie’s adventures in their own subconscious. “Stuff like that happens all the time in shows. You just don’t hear about it,” Somerville responds. “Sometimes I didn’t agree with Cary, and sometimes he didn’t agree with me. Why it was a good collaboration, I think, is we always kind of kept going forward and generating new ideas, until we found the new ideas that we both thought were getting done what needed to get done.” With pretty much anything available to them as a means to express their characters’ inner conflict, narrowing unlimited possibilities down to a finite set of scenes took some negotiation.

For a show involving mental illness, psychoactive drugs, and constantly shifting ground rules, Maniac has a narrative throughline that’s surprisingly easy to follow. Maniac isn’t a mystery box show in the vein of Westworld or Mr. Robot, and it avoids those shows’ worst excesses when it comes to blurring together an unreliable narrator’s perspective and the series’ own; it’s not terribly difficult to distinguish what’s “real” from what’s not. What ambiguity there is largely surrounds the connections between Owen and Annie’s core issues and the sketches their brains—and Somerville and Fukunaga—have concocted as metaphors for them. “Why are we in pain? How do we feel better? What are the different theories about what is causing our disconnection? We really liked that the show at large could keep investigating those questions,” Somerville says. “I don’t really think it comes down super hard in any direction, but I do think it enlivened what was going on in the background all the way through.” The viewer doesn’t have to fully understand the parallels between Owen’s problems, Annie’s problems, and a caper involving a stolen lemur in suburban Long Island for the viewer to intuit them, nor does the show have to spell them out.

Somerville credits much of Maniac’s balancing act—between the oblique and the straightforward, the silly and the sincere—to a negotiated merger of his sensibility and Fukunaga’s. The two agreed on an ideal tone of “absurdity on the one hand, but [with] emotional realism,” while occasionally differing on execution. Some of that difference comes from complementary skill sets. “While I do think visually, I focus much more on character stuff along the way,” Somerville says. Some of it involves separate priorities. “I lean a little bit towards more episodic storytelling, that older model of television—the episode being the thing,” Somerville says. “I think Cary leans a little bit more toward thinking about this as one story, this long form. I think that was a good tension for us.”

Productive tension lies at the core of Maniac’s origin story: between novelty and clarity, between farce and feeling, between a brand-new model of TV and traditional storytelling. “It was super stressful. It put a lot of pressure on the crew, on the cast, with a lot of changes happening,” Somerville says of Maniac’s winding path to the screen. “But there’s no point in a collaboration unless everybody involved is getting what they think is absolutely necessary to get the best version of the show.”