This Maniac review contains spoilers.
Maniac Episode 6
“Let me just see if I understand this,” Dr. Greta Mantleray (Sally Field) says to her son, James partway through Maniac Episode 6. “Seven years ago – shortly after you and your therapist mother stopped speaking – you decided to develop a sequence of drugs that would eliminate therapy altogether. But now your mother computer is sad so you had to call in your real mother to talk to her about her feelings. Is that correct?”
Well. When you put it that way…
Through its first five episodes, Maniac was missing precisely this very moment in which Dr. Greta so succinctly sums up the motivation of the main players of the series. It didn’t need to be something as explicit and expositional as this. The show could have certainly left more clues. But beautifully comedic clarity is here and we’d better appreciate it damn it.
“Larger Structural Issues” is filled with clarity. It’s now clearer than every why we’re all gathered here and what the show is trying to say. Dr. Mantleray is a damaged individual with an equally damaged mother who couldn’t’ healthily deal with the loss of her husband despite being the world’s most famous therapist. So, Mantleray, disgusted with his mother’s imperfection set out to create a series of drugs that would eliminate the need for therapy altogether.
We don’t need the series to conclude (and I’ve been a good little critic and not watched ahead as I review) to know that this drug treatment likely won’t work – at least not in the way Dr. Mantleray intended it. Mantleray is attempting to eliminate the hard work in self-improvement and replace it with something easier – something less confrontational. Life doesn’t work that way though and for the most part – neither does art. I suspect Maniac will draw similar conclusions. For now, it’s helpful merely to get some cards on the table even if it’s in an overly expository fashion.
Let’s be honest though, f your show needs to awkwardly state its own thesis statement in a big chunk of dialogue halfway through – it helps to have Sally Field deliver that dialogue. The acting on this show remains sublime. Justin Theroux has perfected the genre of “over serious to the point of hammy” character acting while Jonah Hill and Emma Stone continually amaze by doing so much with so little. Even Sonoya Mizuno has done remarkable work in filling out what might be the show’s most utilitarian role, Dr. Azumi Fujita. With all that fine acting on display, however, it’s nice to see that Maniac has found room for the beloved acting genre of “Sllaaaaaaay Sally kweeeeeeen slaaaaay!”
Sally Field is just wonderful here. It was wonderful to see the Gertie version of her in episode 5 and it’s wonderful to see her in the flesh now. Not only does she fill in a big missing piece for the emotional mission of the show (Sad doctor man sad about mother, does bad things), she also carries with her a level of madcap vibrancy. Of course Greta Mantleray, the world’s most famous pop psychologist, has a rent boy named Julio who follows her everywhere, massaging her shoulders.
Her presence also means a lot for the subjects of the study. Owen for one seems to view the sudden appearance of a mental health “celebrity” as yet another harbinger of his doom. The B trials were rough on him and being tied to Annie hasn’t been as exciting and helpful for him as it has been for her. Owen intends to leave the study ini the dead of night when he’s distracted by Gertie calling him over.
She asks what he’s doing with a suitcase.
“I need to go to an emergency room,” he says.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because I don’t know if this is really happening. Because celebrity therapist Greta Mantleray is here. Because I’m talking to a wall. I need medicine.”
It’s pretty heartening to hear the words “medicine” finally on Maniac. While the world the show takes place in isn’t exactly ours – it’s close enough. Dr. Mantleray says he was born in 1977, which makes him just six years younger than Justin Theroux – meaning Maniac definitely takes place in the 2010s of its universe. We also know that schizophrenia is very much a thing as Gertie’s diagnosis of Owen comes back confirming what he’s been told before.
Thankfully Maniac seems to finally be acknowledging that talk therapy or even the pill equivalent version of that would not be enough to help Owen. He needs a hospital and drug therapy. That’s how this shit works. It’s smart of Maniac to acknowledge that. It’s also smart of the show to have Annie remind Owen that he thinks his schizophrenia is a misdiagnosis. That way should the show eventually “heal” Owen, it can just fall back on the misdiagnosis route and now send a message to legitimately mentally ill viewers of the show that they’d be alright if they just met Emma Stone or whatever.
Ironically, “Larger Structural Issues.” kind of highlights the larger structural issues with Maniac itself. This is still a pleasant and at times intriguing viewing experience. Unfortunately it can’t quite find a way to be entertaining, intriguing, and illuminating all at once. It presents the viewer with visually lush landscapes and moments and then must take a break to explain what that all meant. Great shows are able to accomplish meaning and spectacle at the same time. Episodes like “Larger Structural Issues” tend to suffer because…well, because the show has to clean up some of its larger structural issues.
Granted, there’s a lot a show can get away with when it has a Sally Field day.