Well–acted, thoughtfully constructed, and odd in all the right ways, Netflix’s Maniac was an elegant return to form when it came to the streaming service’s ever–growing body of original content. Rich world–building and tongue–in–cheek dark humor made this 2018 series a bingeable one, while its relevant underlying themes of alienation in contemporary life ultimately made it a meaningful watch. Maniac is centered around two very different individuals, Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), who each experience mental health issues and monetary concerns that, by one way or another, land them in an otherworldly experimental drug trial. After undergoing a series of hallucinogenic therapies, which, due to a glitch, end up overlapping Owen and Annie’s experiences, the two find ways of facing the underlying trauma at the root of their suffering, forming a bond of friendship along the way. Ultimately, Maniac is concerned with the capacity for connection to heal us, and conveys this message through an exceptionally well–made limited series.
Flash forward to 2019: Netflix unloads a splattering of new original series to entertain us in the new year. It was about three quarters of the way through the newest miniseries, Russian Doll, that I noticed something eerily familiar about the show’s inventive science–fiction storytelling framing an inner narrative about two troubled New Yorkers. Although Russian Doll features no quirky biomed team, sentient mother–figure robot, or experimental drug trials, the themes that make the darkly comedic sci–fi a success are remarkably similar to those of Maniac.
Like Maniac, Russian Doll situates us in New York—a version of it that feels extremely tactile and familiar while also acting like a caricature of itself. Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), the show’s protagonist, is a jaded, self–obsessed, proto–cat–lady. Due to her characteristic recklessness, she is hit by a car on her 36th birthday, only to emerge in the same avant garde bathroom she was using before leaving the party. Interwoven into her attempts to cope with a cycle of reliving the party, which has dark significance as 36 was the age at which Nadia’s mother died, we learn that Nadia’s issues stem from her childhood experience with her mother’s mental illness and guilt regarding her death. This mirrors Annie’s trauma regarding the death of her sister in Maniac, for which she too feels responsible, ultimately leading her to abuse the experimental therapy known as “A” in order to cope. Small parallels like these are only part of the reason why these two series seem like they’re in conversation with each other. Without revealing any spoilers, Russian Doll ultimately plays off the idea that finding the courage to reach out and connect with another person is part of making peace with your demons. Attempting to struggle through on your own may seem like the only answer, but it can often lead to self–destructive behavior, as it does for the characters in Russian Doll.
Neither Maniac nor Russian Doll are life–changingly profound, but their use of goofy science–fiction scenarios to approach modern life is approachable and effective. They encourage self–awareness while being thoroughly entertaining, which is often the result of well–executed dark humor. These thematic similarities seem to fly right in the face of our conventional relationship with streamable content, which often treats media as an escape from our problems—a retreat from the complications of work and social life into a more comforting space. Curiously, both Maniac and Russian Doll deal with individuals for whom isolation has prevented growth, posed barriers to wellness, and have lead to paths of self–destruction. Netflix has long been praised for its portrayal of mental health concerns, especially in one of its earliest original series, Bojack Horseman, and these two series follow suit. On one hand, mindlessly consuming media can be an unhealthy coping mechanism, but on the other, Netflix is actively producing content that highlights contemporary anxieties around concealing pain in an alienating world. How exactly do we reconcile these conflicts?
Ultimately, science–fiction is a flexible genre that can manipulate the ways of the world to elevate some dimension of ordinary life, and that’s exactly how Maniac and Russian Doll use their hybridized dark comedy to create meaning for viewers. Both shows emphasize how caring for others isn’t a cure–all, but a force that can moderate and manage pain in ways that isolation can’t. Thus, while Netflix is a massive corporation that relies on the demand for bingeable content to stay in business, in moderation their shows can be a source to incite conversations about mental health and the nature of media as a whole. The democratized nature of Netflix lets us all join in on the conversation—it’s up to us to make the most of it.