“Perchance to Dream, Televisually”
One of the last major trends in American television, before it ceased to exist, was the rise of quality programming on Home Box Office. Started in the early 1970s as a way of delivering television to rural areas, by the late 1990s, HBO was creating the most sophisticated television in both of the medium’s foundational modes: the situation comedy, Sex in the City (1998) and the hour-long drama, The Sopranos (1999). HBO’s triumphant economic model revolved around its massive cash flow: 30 million subscribers at $15 per month meant that HBO brought in a half of a billion dollars a month, rivaling a small Hollywood studio’s revenue for an entire year. That huge number did not even include HBO’s global division, nor its theatrical and home video distribution wings.
The financial dominance of Netflix makes HBO look like the loser of a quaint game of Monopoly. With 100 million subscribers at nearly $10 per month means that the streaming giant’s monthly revenue is upwards of one billion dollars. Again, that number is per month, meaning that Netflix garners over $10 billion dollars a year in revenue. This matches almost exactly the size and scope of the porn industry in the United States, which has for decades dwarfed the revenue of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking in this country, producing about 600 films per year, not coincidentally the output of Hollywood at its zenith, in the mid-1940s.
I begin my discussion of Netflix’s brilliant new miniseries, Maniac with these financial considerations because they are relevant to understanding the show’s textual maneuvers. Maniac concerns Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Johan Hill), two deeply wounded young adults who join a pharmaceutical trial. The mad genius behind the experiment, which combines drug therapy with a virtual reality interface connected to a depressed female supercomputer, is Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux), whose dream of curing mental illness is a response to his destructive, incestuous relationship with his mother, a sham popular therapist, Greta (Sally Field). Maniac is a genre production machine, placing Annie and Owen in overlapping dream spaces where they re-enact: a comic caper involving a lemur (directly inspired by the Coen Brothers’ 1987 film, Raising Arizona), a 1940s detective film, and the various film versions of The Lord of the Rings.
Based on a Norwegian television series, the show runner for the Netflix remake is Patrick Sommerville (formerly a writer for HBO’s The Leftovers), with the ten episodes directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of the much feted first season of True Detective (also not coincidentally an HBO hour-long drama).
What interests me greatly is the length of the episodes of Maniac. They all come in at forty minutes, caught between the thirty minute time slot for a traditional television sitcom, and an hour-long drama. The collapse of these two foundational genres of Western civilization—Comedy and Tragedy being the two narrative modes first analyzed by Aristotle—does have a televisual backstory.
In the mid-1970s, MTM Studios spun off the sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-1977) into an hour-long drama, Lou Grant (CBS, 1977-1982), converting Mary’s funny, gruff boss at a television news station into a show about a serious editor at an urban newspaper. In academic circles, MTM would become the standard bearer of so-called Quality Television, hour-long dramedies (part comedy, part drama), the most famous of which emerged out of the so-called cops and docs trope of hour-long American television: Hill St. Blues (NBC, 1981-1987) and St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-1988).
HBO deliberately took up the mantle of quality television, but held its sitcom franchise, Sex and the City away from its hour-long, The Sopranos. In Maniac, Netflix allowed the complete destruction of the rules of American television (40 minutes is just as workable in a streaming environment as 30 minutes or an hour) to bring the dramedy back with grandiose vengeance.
Like a well-written one-camera sitcom, Maniac offers razor sharp social critique. A company , Ad Buddy allows someone with no money to pay for things by allowing a marketing companion to incessantly pitch products into the ear of the client. Annie’s father lives in an absurdly small pod in his back yard, to hide from the world. Annie and Owen’s capers are hilarious: As she is breaking her friend out of a mental institution, she declares, “I saw this in a movie. It works.”
Figure 1: Owen’s Ad Buddy pitches products to him as he rides the subway
Amidst the sparkling character comedy, Maniac is a parody of the very frightening repercussions of a world in which dangerous technology runs amuck over the human soul. While presented whimsically—the doctors running the drug-assisted computer obviously require therapy far more than do the test subjects—much of Maniac is dead serious. Owen is asked by his horrifying family to lie under oath to protect his brother, a sexual predator. Annie is trying to recover from the death of her beloved sister in a car accident.
The power of Maniac lies precisely in its “in-between-ness,” allegorized by its forty minute run time. Its central intertextual maneuver is neither to film nor television. At the beginning of the series, Annie plucks a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1615) out of a pile of trash in front of a skyscraper. In the 1940s episode, set at a séance populated with charlatans, Annie and Owen are competitors seeking a purported missing chapter from Cervantes’ book, which can cure the reader by placing her into a perpetual reverie.
Figure 2: Annie rescues a copy of Don Quixote from the trash
Maniac thus positions Don Quixote, the source novel of modern civilization, as the foundation of the televisual dramedy. The comic foibles of a knight-errant, the Man of Lamancha fights windmills that he mistakes for dragons to protect his fair maiden, Dulcinea. While hilarious misadventures drive the plot of the novel, the thematic issues that subtend it (the conflation of fantasy from reality, the difficulty of intervening heroically in the world) have made it one of the most studied texts in Western civilization.
Maniac uses Cervantes’ work to alter the genre formulations of its various fantasy worlds, all the products of the popular American audio-visual imagination. A schizophrenic, Owen desperately wants to be a hero rather than a pawn manipulated by his awful family. Annie wants desperately to recover her devastated family.
In the show’s most transformative genre parody, Annie wakes up in the midst of taking her ill sister on a quest to a lake which has the power to cure her. They both have deformed ears and wear elvish costumes. They are characters in The Lord of the Rings. However, whereas Tolkien’s narrative, and Peter Jackson’s re-activations of it, all concern boyish quests of purportedly epic consequences, Maniac redoes The Lord of the Rings as a female-centered melodrama about love and sacrifice for one’s sister.
The end of the series holds one final intertextual magic trick. Back in the real world after the drug trial is over, Annie breaks Owen out of the mental institution into which his evil family has condemned him. Switching gears from 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (the brain dead test subjects are referred to as McMurphies), the ending of Maniac finds Annie and Owen, not lobotomized, but following the path of Chief Bromden, out the window of the institution, lighting out for the territory of freedom, sought by all Americans, most notably Mark Twain’s dramedy figure, Huckleberry Finn.
As Annie drives Owen away from the mental hospital’s staff, running comically after them, the two-shot in the vehicle invokes the ending of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). That film’s long take ending, which we at first think is a happy one, ends having us feel the life drain out of Benjamin and Elaine’s faces. Maniac’s long take ending two-shot doesn’t last that long: Annie and Owen seem content, but given our knowledge of the dramedy, we suspect that around the corner, the horrors of the world await them anew.
Figure 3: Annie and Owen escape to parts unknown at the end of Maniac