Netflix’s ‘Maniac’ Review (No Spoilers)

With such hit series as Stranger ThingsBlack Mirror, and Ozark to live up to, Netflix is under a lot of pressure to release the next great dark horse success. With Cary Fukunaga of True Detective and Patrick Somerville of The Leftovers as the director and creator respectively, you could expect great things from their latest effort, the limited series Maniac. The only problem is, you could expect a lot of bad things, too.

I could not have been more blown away by the first three episodes of Maniac. Stylistically and thematically, it heavily draws on the works of Philip K. Dick, the mind behind Total Recall and Minority Report. Like Dick’s stories, Maniac plays on themes of paranoia, isolation, and insanity. Our story follows two characters, Annie and Owen, who are both struggling with mental illness and family conflict. Their paths lead them both to a trial for a new pharmaceutical that promises to eventually do away with therapy, by resolving peoples’ psychological issues through induced dream-like experiences. During the course of the trial, we learn about the skeletons in Annie and Owen’s closets, and attempt to resolve these issues by going over them.

Again. And again. And again. And again.

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For at least five episodes, as the trial goes into the “B pill” testing phase, they go over the same information, and the plot goes nowhere. While the first three episodes do a good job of setting a tone, constructing a world, and getting us invested in our characters, all the episodes in the middle completely undo that. Rather than making good use of the world they’ve already done an excellent job in establishing, Maniac goes off in haphazard and pointless directions for no apparent reason other than to do something ‘wacky,’ because, apparently, going on inexplicable and self-indulgent tangents is a proper substitute for actual substance these days.

While there is some tongue-in-cheek humor established early on, by the middle, the series has gone off the deep end into over-the-top goofiness. It’s a true shame, because Jonah Hill and Emma Stone are better in this series than I have ever seen them before, and really proved that they have grown as performers since they appeared together in 2007’s Superbad and can deliver grown-up, mature, and compelling performances. While they still give good performances in the episodes after, it loses much of its impact in the flood of irredeemably lame gimmicks. By the ending, the series has regained some of its form, but, overall, it’s just a completely different show by then, and I hardly care what happens to the characters.

 

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Besides the terrible excuse for humor, the episodes in the B-pill phase have another inexcusable flaw: They essentially present us with a mystery to which we already know the answer, rendering the investigation next to pointless. And, in case we somehow didn’t get the “metaphors,” we’re given a lengthy exposition scene, explaining to us in unnecessary detail exactly what it represented. For clarification, but without spoilers, here’s what we sit through: First, we witness the back story of our characters. Then, we sit through a “dream sequence” full of metaphors for the back story that we just witnessed. Finally, the character explains their back story again, and how the metaphors tied in with it. This recycling of information over the course of multiple episodes is mind-numbingly boring, and absolutely killed my interest in the characters, their struggles, their development, their resolutions, etc. As much as I had empathized with them previously, I now just wanted to get to the end of the series so I could be done with it.

It’s a tragedy to see something as amazing as Maniac‘s first three episodes lead into something as trite, dull, and uninspired as its remaining episodes. What could have been a masterpiece ended up just a lot of failed potential. I wish I could whole-heartedly recommend this series to you. As it is, I’m left warning you ahead of time, you’ll never get to see the ending to the amazing story you’re presented with. Instead, you get to watch a so-stupid-it’s-offensive sketch show with some sci-fi wraparound.

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Review: ‘American Vandal Season 2’ (No Spoilers)

Disclaimer: No spoilers, but story elements will be discussed. If you don’t want anything that might influence you before watching, you may want to turn back now.

I’d like to open by being completely honest with you. I did not want to watch American Vandal at all. I was raised a film snob and I will die a film snob and that was something well-established in my circle. I still resent that I wasted space in my brain to hold information from Season 1. That said, I have acknowledged that Season 1 is not terrible. It’s great for an audience that just doesn’t include me. There are some genuinely funny moments, impressive acting from unknowns that add much-needed realism, and excellent production values. It’s even a good premise: Take the most ridiculous crime you can think of, and make a dead-serious investigative documentary on it. That’s great. I only watched it because my boyfriend and my sister wanted to and I live with them ergo I watched it too. I acknowledge it wasn’t terrible. I just felt there were better things I would rather have spent my time watching.

(Side note: I tried to hide it from my boyfriend when Season 2 came out so I wouldn’t have to watch it.)

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Season 2 is honestly a marked improvement. Again, it’s not one of the best shows you can spend your time on this year, but it’s an enjoyable diversion. The jokes are better integrated with the script, adding to the intended realism of the series. The characters are more relatable, and while still petty and irritating, as humans tend to be, you never really end up hating anyone, ultimately. It’s interesting to note that last season’s accused was a stereotypical low IQ stoner dude-bro, who isn’t what he seems, and this season’s accused is a stereotypical pretentious white privilege intellectual, who isn’t what he seems. In both cases, the dissection of their characters is the real heart of the story.

Let’s get the criticisms out of the way first: My two main complaints this season both involve the twists. And don’t worry, it’s no spoilers, I’m not giving any specifics. However, if you got used to the formula from the first season, Season 2 is very much the same. It follows the same pattern, the same conflicts, the same implications, the same cycle, which makes it easy to figure out where many of the story arcs are going to go. My issue with the final twist, is actually that it’s not obvious enough. I feel that there should have been more foreshadowing, more suggestions of the final solution than we got — which is none, really. It more or less comes out of nowhere. While technically you could have guessed the culprit from early on, there are certain elements you could not have guessed that would make your early deduction flawed. These elements are suddenly introduced, without any precedent. It doesn’t ruin your enjoyment of the show, and it’s not a major criticism. Just an observation.

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The thing I liked best about this season is the characters. I thought they were well nuanced, and behaved more like real people, than the more stereotypical behavior seen in the characters in Season 1. This series is all about subverting peoples’ expectations and straightaway the script makes it clear that these characters aren’t what you expect; it’s just that you’ve been viewing them from a certain lens. This idea is expanded on across the course of the season, evolving and finally becoming clear in the finale, where it unites the various ideas and philosophies presented to us and makes an ultimate statement on human nature and how we interact with our own life.

As with the first season, Season 2 does a good job of building a theme. In Season 1 the overall theme was “People aren’t what they seem so don’t judge too quickly,” and it was prevalent throughout the season. The theme is virtually the same this season, but its tone is very different. It infers that social standing is just an illusion, and that behind a beautiful facade is a real, broken person in need of connection. Because of this theme, social media is a much more important aspect of the mystery this season, bringing out some commentary on the nature of our dualistic, internet-oriented lives.

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In general, I liked Season 2 much better than the first season. I liked the actors, the jokes, and the characters better. This is not to say that it is inherently superior to Season 1, as both have their charms and their pros and cons. It’s just to say that Season 1 can be hard to digest if you’re not very much into it, and Season 2 holds perhaps a more widespread appeal. And while the series has been interesting and unique so far, I think it can only last so long on this premise, and is already starting to become predictable insofar as patterns go.

To be fair, though, whereas Season 1 is like a cudgel, necessary to break audience expectations and set its own standards and precedent, Season 2 is more like a scalpel, expertly dissecting the subjects it chooses for the audience to consider and, perhaps, learn from. If Season 1 didn’t win you over, I suggest you give Season 2 a chance, and its presentation and execution is only improving.

 

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‘Disenchantment’ Review (No Spoilers)

“Entertainment is just a tool that pacifies the masses and leads to the decay and ultimate collapse of the civilization. Let’s clap along!” -Luci (Eric Andre)

Look, here’s the hard and honest truth no one wants to accept.

Disenchantment. Is. Not. As. Bad. As. People. Say. It. Is.

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Sure, if you go in with expectations that it will be a Simpsons or Futurama clone that puts gags first and story after, then you’ll probably be disappointed. But that’s on you, and not the show. The show is fairly decent as its own thing. It is 100% plot driven, with jokes worked in there. The characters are interesting and compelling enough that you want to see what happens with their stories.

The story centers around the hard-drinking Princess Tiabeanie (“Bean” for short), an outcast Elf named Elfo, and a demon named Luci who has been sent to manipulate her. While the characters may at first seem one dimensional, they are further explored, and reveal new mysteries about themselves, as the series progresses. What appeared to be a simple fantasy tale with a Simpsons-y twist turns out to be far from what it seems. There are some dark moments, and some satisfying character development.

I’ll admit, I, myself, was extremely skeptical. I thought it was going to be utterly forgettable. The Simpsons took a sharp dip in quality after its “Golden Age,” and I found Futurama to be spotty in quality. (I think your enjoyment of Futurama is directly proportionate to how much you like Bender, and I found him annoying at best.) Maybe because I had low expectations and thought I’d tire after the first episode, I was greatly impressed and couldn’t wait to see what happened next.

Keep in mind, though, it’s not a laugh fest, and it’s honestly not meant to be. The story comes first at all times, and the jokes are just there to add some spice. The writers work on building up the mysteries, conflicts, and plot twists, which keep you wondering at all times. You feel like you’re always on the verge of discovering something in this show, and I promise you, it does reward you for paying attention and remembering plot details, as certain elements return, further developed, later on in the series.

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These ten episodes do a good job of world building, making you hope for a season two, in order to further explore the possibilities lying within each new place. There are many different creatures and races introduced that are only briefly touched upon, who could hopefully be expanded upon in the future.

Mark Mothersbaugh provides the music, which gives the series a unique feel. It captures the excitement and zaniness of Disenchantment with gusto, giving the feel of a medieval festival full of drunken knights, peasants, and jesters. Mothersbaugh has always delivered quality soundtracks for his projects, and this is no exception.

The title Disenchantment really says it all, as the epic presents you with all the tropes and stereotypes of a classic fantasy and slowly strips away the conventions, twisting them into something worth your attention. It demystifies itself and manages to ground its fantastical characters enough to make them not too outrageous.

All the voice actors do well, but Eric Andre is a standout. His performance as Luci manages to be simultaneously maniacal and endearing. Overall, though, all the actors deserve a shout-out for the amount of characters they voiced, with just 18 voice actors portraying all the characters in the series. Of course former Groening collaborators at present, such as Billy West, Tress MacNeille, John DiMaggio, and Maurice LaMarche, and all do a top notch job as always.

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Overall, Disenchantment is fun, and its something uniquely its own. It’s not The Simpsons, and it’s not Futurama, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. It builds its own intriguing world, and presents you with new characters to follow in their quest to self-discovery. Every character has a purpose and potential to grow, and even if you’re not sold on them at the beginning, by the end, you will care about what’s at stake for all of them. Even if you have low expectations, and even if you end up not liking it, I very much recommend giving it a chance.