How do you design a unique aesthetic for a sci-fi series based in the not-too-distant future? The dank, rain-clogged and violated skyline look, with city streets full of neon signs and gaudy electronica, was popularised by Blade Runner and is a common reference point – creepily beautiful and perhaps realistic, but hardly innovative. The slicker and glossier architecture of The Jetsons is another influential template, imagining the future as a glassy tomorrowland of curved shapes and shiny surfaces.
The new Netflix series Maniac, from True Detective and Beasts of No Nation director Cary Fukunaga, embraces the idea that the future looks a lot like the past. Spike Jonze also explored this approach in his man-falls-in-love-with-OS classic Her, pairing high-tech inventions with old school fashion including tweed jackets and high-waisted pants. In Fukunaga’s future, clothes are broadly the same as today – albeit with a distinctly ’90s twist – but the aesthetics of technology are super retro, stuck in the Atari era.
This has obvious appeal from a budgetary perspective, given the world in Maniac doesn’t need to be reinvented or extravagantly decorated. But, more interestingly, a point is also being made about the cyclical nature of fashion – from clothes to architecture to home decorating and computing – and an emphasis placed on non-aesthetic differences in day-to-day life. These are often more interesting than design choices.
Take for example what happens when, in the first episode, Anne (Emma Stone) doesn’t have enough money to buy a packet of cigarettes. She tells the wary fellow behind the counter of a run-down convenience store that she will use an ‘Ad Buddy’ to cover the costs. As we soon discover, an Ad Buddy is a person employed to follow somebody around and read them advertisements. A ridiculous and yet utterly plausible concept reminiscent of Denmark’s The Human Library, where people rather than books can be borrowed.
Take another moment early in episode one, when Anne is reprimanded on the street by the security guard of an office building. This triggers a short but interesting dialogue exchange. She reacts angrily: “What are you, a cop?” The man responds: “There’s not much of a difference, authority-wise.”
I love that line, which returns in different circumstances in a later episode. In a real-world setting that line wouldn’t work like it does here; it would probably come across as an awkward attempt by the guard to big-note themselves. But in this universe it is a strange and interesting touch, suggesting traditional hierarchies and notions of power have changed. Have different kinds of professions taken on the role of quasi-police forces? Do the fuzz in this world have less authority than they used to?
Fukunaga and his team rather brilliantly make the point that the end of reality and the end of days might be very different things.
Created by novelist Patrick Somerville and based on a Norwegian TV series of the same name, Maniac centres around an ultra-secret pharmaceutical trial and two of its key participants: Anne and Owen (Jonah Hill). The latter belongs to a wealthy family and suffers from schizophrenia. The drug trial aims to end human suffering and permanently cure whatever ails ‘ya – including grief and depression. The participants swallow pills that effectively trigger incredibly vivid dreams, leading them (and the audience) to question where reality ends and fantasy begins.
Without giving much away, the show’s fabulously playful structure changes according to the kind of dream the characters are involved in. Some of Maniac takes place in a Tolkien-esque fantasy world, with swords and misty mountains and elves and talking dragonflies and the like. Some of it belongs to a Scorsese-esque gangster universe. The various plot threads fold back into the characters’ psyches in Charlie Kaufman-like ways, fusing the strange goings-on in their minds with the form and content of the show itself.
Despite the retro-future setting, Maniac – one of the most exciting TV programs of the year – is very much of our times. It seems like every other day that fundamental aspects of truth, subjectivity and accountability are being questioned in all sorts of ways from all sorts of places. As virtual and augmented realities rise, the robot revolution inches closer and tech companies wield more power in more forms than ever before, once hyperbolic descriptions of the present – like ‘The Last Days of Reality’ – now seem to be on the money.
Maniac paints a universe a little further down the track than ours, where all these forces are mixing and congealing. Human minds are displaced in a morass of forces pulling us in many strange directions. Fukunaga and his team rather brilliantly make the point that the end of reality and the end of days might be very different things. And yet despite all this disruption of consciousness and phenomena too large for any of us to comprehend, some kind of hope remains – in that love (in a weird way, Maniac is a romance) still has the power to prevail. When you string those words together in a sentence it sounds cheesy. Fukunaga’s fantastic series is anything but.
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