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Maniac’s best and bleakest joke is its gig-economy dystopia

Photo: Michele K. Short (Netflix)
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Infinite Scroll is a series about the increasingly blurry lines between the internet, pop culture, and the real world.

Maniac has proven to be a contentious show—just see the disparity between our pre-air rave and our more muted episode recaps—in part because of the wild disparity between episodes. By the time the final credits roll, you can delineate clear narrative arcs for the show’s star-crossed leads, but they’re told in a dense blur of styles, beginning in a comic near-future dystopia before delving deep into episodic hallucinations recalling Raising Arizona, Eastern Promises, and Lord Of The Rings, among others. With each new vista, director Cary Joji Fukunaga shifts into an entirely new style, employing horizontal wipes and galling violence and single-take action shots as necessary.

But the most fully realized of these is that top-level real world, an alternate reality that, as Fukunaga and creator/writer Patrick Somerville describe it, was identical to ours until “something happened in the ’90s.” Some of pop culture proceeded apace: there are references to Madagascar, Taken, Ordinary People, and a prolonged Police cover (swooned to on-screen by Sting’s real-life wife Trudie Styler). There isn’t a cellphone in sight; technology seems stuck in an early ’80s, cathode-ray funk, with monitors that bleep out chunky Atari-style graphics. The internet’s there, but analog, with brick-and-mortar stores called “Dox Stops” for all your identity-hacking needs. In the north bay of New York, a Saunders-esque Statue Of Extra Liberty has been constructed, looking like some sort of scepter-wielding executioner of patriotism. Somerville has described this heightened version of reality as a means of giving the show “some comic energy, and some comic possibilities” that wouldn’t be based on the mental health of its characters—a problem that plagued the original, Norwegian version of the show. Down in the dream-world, Jonah Hill (as Owen) and Emma Stone (as Annie) flex their comic chops, but in the real world, the humor comes from society itself—in particular, from the show’s darkly believable extrapolation of our so-called “gig economy.”

For a long time, that term has been bandied around as some sort of evolutionary step in capitalism, a future envisioned by companies like Uber, Airbnb, Fiverr, and more, in which everyone is free to take work when and as they need it. As it turns out, these endless piecemeal jobs don’t really provide stability or a rewarding sense of employment, not to mention health care or even much money. Working when an app instructs you to ends up being just as dehumanizing, if not more so, than doing it when your shift supervisor texts you. Maniac sends this trend into hyper-drive, imagining a New York City where everybody is selling everything just to afford shoebox apartments. The joke arrives early in the form Ad Buddies, a sort of credit system that allows people to pay for goods and services by having a real human trail them, reading ad copy out loud—the ultimate in pop-up advertising. Hill looks into a job with Daddy’s Home, a company that places men in the role of recently deceased fathers, until he finds out he has to pay for the opportunity to do this work. Hired actors get personnel files to serve as paid Friend Proxies, often with dispiriting results. The joke is as much about the existence of these jobs as it is the misery of the people performing them; High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair breaks character as a Friend Proxy at one point to muse, “I hate my fucking life.”

Despite the eye-popping production design, equal parts Her and Alien, this late-capitalist hellscape feels weirdly believable. In point of fact, we’re already pretty much there. A recent pair of articles in The Atlantic and New Yorker explored the phenomenon of Family Romance, a Japanese company that hires out some 800-plus actors to serve as parents, children, bosses, friends, and lovers for an increasingly isolated and lonely population. Some of the stories are astonishing: a young girl growing up believing that an actor is her father, and his pain at withholding the truth from her; entire weddings full of performers arranged just to satisfy a parent’s whims; order forms detailing clothing choices and personality preferences that are then lived out for years at a time. Maniac maps this to America, envisioning a world where humans are just as willing to sell their identity as we are, albeit via more tangible means. Where we trade our privacy for convenience with every “sign in on Facebook” widget we click, the soul-bedraggled denizens of Maniac’s New York auction their identity and their very person off to the highest corporate bidder. “Personhood” and “profession” are intertwined, and spiraling down the drain together.

For a good half of the show—the better half of the show, you might say, depending on how much you’re willing to follow its fantasy threads to the end—it seems dominated with the tension between profession and identity. Owen rejects his family business to work as a drone on its lowest levels, eschewing their mansion to live in a capsule on Roosevelt Island. He becomes fixated on Annie after seeing her repeatedly in advertisements around town—but, she confesses, this was merely because she “sold her face” to a stock image company. Her greatest trauma was the death of her sister after an exhausted semi driver, who had been at the wheel for 30 hours, drove them off the road. Owen’s greatest trauma was confusing a crush for a Friend Proxy, believing this false reality so much that he scared her away forever. Security guards are constantly being measured against real cops, defending their scattershot authority. The entire comedy takes place, it occurs to you eventually, at a workplace: a psychedelic clinical trial, attended by gig-economy scavengers willing to barter their mental health for a lump of cash. Ultimately, the show’s greatest critique isn’t pharmaceutical or clinical therapy but its hyper-capitalist, careerist manifestations, in the form of Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) and his mom (Sally Field).

Hill and Stone are uniquely well-suited for this post-identity milieu, disappearing into showy accents and costumes with manic comic energy. This generates some of the show’s best jokes—Stone begrudgingly enduring elvish fantasy horseshit, Hill going full Strangelove in a bizarre spy caper—and also some of its most moving moments, like when they break character in their fantasies and briefly melt back into their real-world identities. In this way, the show’s hallucinatory episodes are a proxy for acting itself, allowing the actors (and Fukunaga) to highlight the absurdity of the make-believe worlds they’ve chosen to spend their lives inhabiting. When Owen and Annie return to the real world, they don’t shake the lives they’ve lived in the fantasy; they keenly remember their dream-children and the very real emotional connection they shared within the simulation. You never clock out when you’re selling yourself, they seem to be saying. This is as true for a Fiverr “doer” as it is a personal-brand huckster or a major actor. See Inland Empire for proof.

That’s a huge part of the fun of Maniac: finding a thread and pulling until out pops David Lynch or “The Inner Light” or Satoshi Kon or Philip K. Dick. One of the things science fiction is best at is turning broad, abstract ideas into concrete, almost navigable spaces. You know Maniac’s New York because it looks and sounds so much like the one we know, but, more than that, because it creates a recognizable psychic space, one of endless hustle and chained cups of coffee. It’s exhausting and sad and, fortunately, also very funny. But it finds some hope in the idea that, somewhere within this dense maelstrom of influences and simulations and riffs and gigs, a real connection can be forged between two people. That the show ultimately feels like a celebration of this fact also seems like a refutation of the real world that rendered Annie and Owen so desolate and downtrodden in the first place. It all ends with one final escape from reality, out of the city and the forces that built it.