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 colour 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.” 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 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. 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.