Traversing the minefield of clichés

Jacob Leiser watches 'Maniac' on Netflix.

As a psychologist, I find it can be a very frustrating experience to see how works of fiction use (or, more commonly, abuse) psychological issues. The frequent use of clichés and stereotypes makes for tiresome viewing; think white-clad patients wandering aimlessly around a hospital or a client lying on a couch talking about their mother. However, Cary Fukunaga’s new Netflix limited series Maniac bucks this trend. The American director, who has been chosen to direct the next James Bond film and whose previous credits include Beasts of No Nation and True Detective, adds to his impressive résumé with this 10-episode series. Hollywood regulars Emma Stone (La La Land and The Help) and Jonah Hill (Wolf of Wall Street and Moneyball) head an impressive cast that more than meets the demands of this ambitious project.

The series is set in a highly stylised, retro-futuristic New York, and centres on a drug trial for a medication aimed at replacing traditional talking therapy. Stone and Hill’s characters (Annie Landsberg and, the ironically named, Owen Milgrim) meet after applying to take part in the drug trial for their own personal reasons. Annie’s involvement has an ulterior motive as she is suffering with an addiction to one of the drugs being tested. Whereas Owen, who is heavily influenced by delusional thoughts amplified by the recurring hallucination of his imaginary brother ‘Grimsson’ (portrayed superbly by Billy Magnussen), seeks to find some meaning to his confusing life. At each of the three stages of the trial, the participants take a pill and are induced into a deep sleep. With the aid of a highly intelligent computer system the participants experience extremely vivid dream scenarios (referred to as ‘reflections’) in which they must face the challenges involved in traditional talking therapy, in a very literal way. The ‘A’ pill causes participants to relive their worst, most traumatic memory. ‘B’ allows participants to identify detrimental, unseen aspects of their personality and ‘C’ forces them to then confront the physical manifestations of these characteristics. For the latter two drugs, the various computer-generated dream scenarios are played out using distinct genres and new characters. This provides a visual treat for the viewer and allows Hill and Stone to flex their acting muscles with the pair taking on a number of different roles, including Stone’s belligerent half-elf in a Lord of the Rings-themed scenario and Hill’s portrayal of the son of a New Jersey mob boss, equipped with an eye-watering set of gold teeth. With the litany of genres utilised by Fukunaga, there will be something for everyone across the various dream scenarios induced by the ‘B’ and ‘C’ pills.

From a psychological perspective, Maniac gives a fascinating insight into how the world of fiction can envisage the future of clinical practice. It is telling that in the fictional world where the fields of technology and pharmaceuticals are so much more advanced than our own, the role of human interaction is still a vital component of the therapeutic process. In the story, the lead researcher’s (Justin Theroux) personal vendetta against talking therapy is inadvertently undermined given that one of the most important aspects of the drug trial involves a one-on-one conversation with each participant about their experience of the ‘B’ drug. This scene resembles what one might expect in a traditional therapy session, with participants being aided by the researcher in processing the events they experienced during their reflections. This scene, along with the ongoing message of the importance of the social aspect of dealing with mental health issues, highlights the ever-present necessity for humans in the therapeutic process. 

Fukunaga achieves a lot in Maniac, from seamlessly integrating a range of current issues, such as mental health, big pharma and technology, into one enjoyable narrative, posing intriguing questions about the future of therapy and the role of the therapist, to the successful, continuous switching of genres throughout the second half of the series. However, one particular achievement of the series is that all of this is accomplished while successfully traversing the minefield of clichés so often associated with psychological fiction.

- Reviewed by Jacob Leiser, who is studying for an MSc in Research Methods of Psychological Science at Glasgow University.

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