Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Maniac should maybe just be about Justin Theroux jerking off

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Photo: Michele K. Short (Netflix)

This is the first episode of Maniac where I really feel like I have a firm handle on the tone: This is a dark comedy, through and through, starting from the beginning moments of the episode when one of the orderlies tells the drug trial subjects, “You waived ethics on your consent form.” (Oops!) It’s not that it wasn’t a dark comedy before, more that the first two episodes felt like they were working overtime to establish a range of possible tones and modes of storytelling so that any given future episode could run the gamut, without actually establishing a baseline to start out. That baseline, I hope, is somewhere in the vicinity of “raiding the desk of a dead man while his corpse is still warm” and “balding Justin Theroux jerking off in VR surrounded by PB&J crusts.”


Dr. Muramoto leads the subjects through a series of intense interviews describing their experience during the first phase, although it seems like the scientists have a lot of data from GRTA. Owen and Annie are flagged to be kicked out of the study—Annie because the doctors can tell she’s been taking A somehow, Owen because he didn’t actually take the pill. Pressed to describe his worst memory, Owen tells a (presumably unreliable, though fully filmed and acted out) story of his brother’s engagement party. Owen’s brother (the one who probably assaulted someone, and is the subject of the trial) does a deeply unsettling performance of “Every Breath You Take” dedicated to his fiancé Jemima Kirke, complete with tiny nose bops. Intense interviews. Owen goes up to the roof and jumps, only to land relatively harmlessly on the skylight.

Eventually, Dr. Muramoto makes Owen take the pill, which he tells Annie forces him to relive the beginning of his schizophrenia, when he accuses a nascent crush of being hired by his parents. But when Annie goes in for her interview, the doctor passes out and dies in his office, and she calls Owen in to help her steal some drugs and mess with their files so that they don’t get kicked out of the study. This is the first real conversation Annie and Owen have had, and it feels like a turning point for the show. Should it have come in the middle of episode three? No. But it’s nice to watch the two stars interact and to watch their dynamic so quickly take the form of Annie pushing Owen to do stuff through sheer force of personality, while simultaneously remaining empathetic to his history of mental health problems. (Notably: They basically tell each other all of the details of their backstories in this scene, and while I love Julia Garner, I think I would have been just fine with learning all of that information here.)

I am enormously grateful that Dr. Muramoto is dead; not because I disliked the character, but because of what his demise makes Dr. Fujita do. After going to speak to her boss on the 77th floor of the building (mediated by a TV screen), Dr. Fujita goes to a seedy apartment to find Dr. Mantleray and convince him to retake control of the project. Dr. Mantleray is finally, fully introduced to the show having VR sex with the high priestess of Atlantis, complete with Dragonball Z hair and tentacles. It is beautiful. In the real world, Mantleray is balding, unstable, and using something called a Sucktube. “Of course I’ll need several minutes to get my affairs in order,” he tells Fujita, overcompensating with one of many wigs while trying to act smug and satisfied.

The faux-redemption story here, in which Mantleray gets a chance to earn back his career and his girlfriend (he and Fujita used to be an item), is parodically well-worn territory. But Theroux’s performance is so note-perfect, so humiliating and (largely) un-self-aware, that it manages to be comedic gold. This is the kind of material I hope that Maniac settles on. It might not be the most “original” or exciting thing the show is doing, but the combination of the series’ obscenely expensive production design, Fukunaga’s direction, and Theroux’s commitment to flop sweat is so good that it doesn’t matter. Theroux’s intense insecurity and pompousness, especially compared to Soyona Mizuno’s calm competence, is great, and works well as a complement to the dynamic between Annie and Owen. It especially helps that Fukunaga manages to constantly frame Theroux as fundamentally pathetic, while still using the pan downward from Mantleray’s sleep pod to Fujita’s as a way of connecting the characters and suggesting they might be worth rooting for.

Once Mantleray has fully taken over, the subjects all take the mysterious B pill, and… everything is difference. Owen has a mullet, is named “Bruce,” and is wearing the jersey of Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon. Annie is his wife, and similarly appears to be living in a sitcom version of the 1980s. And just when I thought we’d reached some degree of stability from this show.


Stray observations

  • I love the shot of Annie waiting in front of Dr. Muramoto’s body, smirking as she tries to pass the “test” she assumes he’s giving before realizing, “Oh, you’re actually dead. Fuck.”
  • The driver who hit Annie and Ellie’s car apparently changed his middle named to “f.u.n.” Congrats to Jack Antonoff, I guess?
  • GRTA tells Dr. Fujita that she “[has] all the feels,” which is especially funny when you consider that the computer is being voiced by Sally Field.