Staying Healthy is a Full-Time Job

Shamir dives deep into the psychology of Netflix's Maniac.

Upon my dive into Netflix’s original series Maniac I had no previous information about what it would be about. I probably wasn’t the only one who saw Jonah Hill in the series’ promotional photo and prepared myself for a light-hearted comedy. While Maniac does possess its humorous moments, I found myself existentially pondering the deeper meaning to every episode.

Maniac follows Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill). Annie is a hard living young woman who hustles regularly to make ends meet. She possesses a tough but tender persona that often has her viewed as rude and selfish. Owen, on the other hand, is a bit more tempered. Coming from a wealthy family, he often comes off as aloof and cautious, constantly managing his schizophrenic symptoms. Owen constantly questions everything around him in fear of falling into an episode as alluded to by his family in the first episode. Annie and Owen finally cross paths during a pharmaceutical trial. Owen, recently laid off from his job, participates in the trial partly as a way to make money, but mostly because of his strong belief in destiny. He’s hopeful he could possibly discover more about himself and his current lackluster situation. However Annie, who was already abusing the medication provided in the trial, participated to get a quick buck and fix.

Owen quickly notices Annie at the beginning of the trial because of previous premonitions. He reluctantly confronts her but is quickly shut down by her brute disregard. It isn’t until the trials begin they realized their connection. The medication created by Dr. Mantleray (Justin Theroux) proved to be a deeply invasive trial held together by the stylishly nonchalant Dr. Fujita (Sonoya Mizuno). With the Consumption of three pills, all participants had their bodies hooked up to and their brains monitored by a fickle machine that grew to possess artificial intelligence and emotions. While hooked to the machine, all participants relive past traumas—some maybe in different lifetimes—but throughout the whole trial, Annie and Owen seem to always find each other.

The visions created by the machine are simulations which forced the participants to face their traumas in extreme ways. The simulations consisted of intemperate situations that mirrored Annie and Owen’s life in one way or another. Owen’s inner conflict? Being left out and pressured by his affluent family, Specifically to lie under oath for his more beloved brother who found himself in trouble with a sexual assault case. He often finds himself having to choose between his own personal morals and the protection and safety of his brother Jed (Billy Magnussen) in order to gain his family’s approval. Annie found herself confronted with the death of her younger sister Ellie (Julia Garner). The girls’ home life was far from ideal, and throughout the years Annie took the role as Ellie’s protector and struggled with blaming herself for her death. Still, as Annie and Owen worked their way through their individual trauma, they also had to reckon with the connection they had with each other. Their connection isn’t necessarily cathartic or romantic, but destined in a way that neither party really understands.

The simulations throughout the series are wildly vivid with Annie and Owen facing situations together that vary from being a married couple in the 1980s who try to rescue a wild animal, to agents in Iceland warding off the CIA. This was particularly entertaining because we get to see Hill and Stone’s acting range in such a short series. Both actors performances were spectacular and noteworthy. The seamless switch between each character and accent was done with so much poise and conviction that its challenges—like Hill’s comical Icelandic accent—still felt endearing. The show as a whole sometimes felt like it was packing in a lot at a slow pace. I often found myself overwhelmed with all the different simulated scenarios. However the strong cast kept it intriguing, especially Mizuno’s portrayal of Dr. Fujita whose look is bound to be a muse this Halloween season.

My favorite thing about the whole series was how it put a spotlight on the lack of emotional development in the digital age. The show took place in a futuristic time and dimension but mirrored a lot of modern societal challenges that come with emotional vulnerability and mental health. In the series there are reoccurring scenes where Stone’s character made extra money by pretending to be friends with people that pay for human interaction. The notion of paying for company seems far fetched but not unlike the modern dating world. With the world of online dating and hookup culture becoming the norm, I often find myself and the people around me become more closed off to the idea of making substantial connections with others. The pharmaceutical trials performed in the show were often criticized by Dr. Mantleray’s own mother Greta (Sally Field) who makes a living as a best selling celebrity therapist. Her concerns are seen as selfish initially, maybe the trials will threaten her book sales or her livelihood as a therapist, but maybe there are certain things medication can’t fix? She feared that working through trauma in such a harsh and clinical way may not actually remedy the mentally ill, but rather desensitize them.

I found myself drawn to Maniac as a person who also struggles with mental illness and the balance of technology, self care, and medication that comes along with it. After suffering a violent psychotic episode, I spent a week in a psychiatric facility. Upon my release I was heavily medicated, which helped a lot and was necessary to my recovery, but after a while It started to feel like a bit much. I found myself feeling numb instead of cured. Being an artist requires fishing in a deep well for emotions; I was supposed to be completing an album and the high dosage of my meds wouldn’t let me access that. That’s when I realized medication isn’t a cure. When you are mentally ill it is an ongoing thing you have to monitor, even meds can wear off or affect your brain in different ways after a while. After talking to my psychiatrist, I started talk therapy and taking less drugs, and the balance of both did wonders! The human brain is so intricate that when it come to mental illness I don’t think theres one quick fix.

What I loved about Maniac is its commentary on that. Living in a capitalist society is already a struggle for most, but it seems to be more of a struggle for the mentally ill. Staying healthy is a full-time job within itself, so I understand the need for medication advancement. I understand the privilege of my being a musician with a lot of free time to focus on self care, but I think there are certain societal changes that need to be implicated that science can not fix. We should not have to live in a world where self care is a privilege, and if Maniac is an accurate prediction, i don’t want to be apart of a future where human interaction is a commodity.

Aside from my initial shock, Maniac really held my attention. I personally am not a fan of sci-fi and some may describe it as such. However Maniac seems to really be more of a modern social commentary than a fictional futuristic wasteland. It feels like Black Mirror but less far fetched. Maniac isn’t the easiest thing to binge, but it’s definitely worth the watch.

Shamir is Shamir and remains Shamir through and through, no matter what the universe puts him through. You may know the singularly named artist (think—Madonna or Cher) from his 2015 debut hit record Rachet, beloved by NPR listeners and club kids alike. After quickly rising to underground fame with his Northtown EP in 2014, the DIY pop star made a sonic splash with Rachet’s lead single “On The Regular,” a poppy banger that had extensive commercial usage. But how to follow all that up? Shamir, who came from the dusty dunes of Las Vegas, to Brooklyn’s Silent Barn, to the Philly indie scene (and all over the world in between), wanted to go back to what had inspired him from the beginning. Outsider music, country & punk. Raw and vulnerable tunes, stripped down to their emotional core. 2017’s Revelations explored a new avenue of guitar driven hooky indie rock and was widely critically praised in the US and overseas.

Shamir’s most recent releases, the brilliant Room 7” on Father/Daughter, and his self-released limited edition album, Resolution, are pinnacles in the catalog of the increasingly fascinating artist’s career. Room and its b-side Caballero celebrate Shamir’s love of country music, while Resolution is a deeply introspective look into the fabric of society and the artists’ own mind.  With these two releases he has refined his craft exponentially and done so in less than six months from the release of Revelations.