Now more than ever before, we’re seeing a tide of awareness around mental illness in society. With recognized mental health days and on-screen representation in popular culture, it seems that society is truly making an effort to challenge the stereotypes and stigma that the mentally ill have lived with for decades. Maniac, a recent Netflix original series, has embodied this acceptance and has done well in its portrayal of mental illness.
The show centers on Owen Milgrim, played by Jonah Hill, and Annie Landsberg, played by Emma Stone: two people whose lives intertwine when they find themselves partaking in a questionable pharmaceutical trial. Judging solely by the trailer, the series looks like an elongated version of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or a hazy, colourful Inception spin-off — but it’s nothing of the sort.
Maniac entangles the protagonists’ minds together while they test drugs meant to “fix” their lives. What’s unique to the show is that it explores themes of therapy, trauma and mental illness in an original and truthful way, and does so particularly well when it comes to the character of Owen Milgrim and schizophrenia.
Horror and crime films as well as TV shows have long since painted people living with schizophrenia — or with any mental illness dealing with psychosis — with the same stereotypical brush. When schizophrenia isn’t being confused with “split personality disorder,” professionally known as dissociative identity disorder, those suffering from the illness are depicted as either violent, like Nan and Pop from The Visit, or victims of their own illness, like Spencer Reid’s mom in Criminal Minds or Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island.
But in Maniac, Milgrim embodies none of these depictions. He’s a timid, independent guy who, though struggling with his schizophrenia, is nowhere near the stigmatized picture of psychosis the media would normally make him out to be.
Among a group of brothers all working in the family business, Milgrim is the black sheep. He refuses to work alongside his siblings and doesn’t seem to get along with them, but despite that, he still cares for them. He understands that they don’t treat him as family should, but these people — who raised him and grew up beside him — are all he knows, and he feels a sense of duty towards them. Despite Milgrim’s familial obligations, it’s clear his family doesn’t feel the same way about him; his father and brothers routinely mock, taunt and blackmail him to meet their own ends. Unlike how the media usually depicts the mentally ill, Milgrim is the one manipulated by family members aware of his illness, instead of the other way around.
It may not be the biggest plot focus, but Maniac doesn’t negate the importance of demonstrating people’s relationship with therapy. The gist of the pharmaceutical trial is to completely replace therapy; it aims to take the one memory that has scarred them (assuming there is only one) and use methods to help them make peace with their memories and live happier lives by the end of the trial. Between Milgrim and Landsberg, it’s clear that that treatment wasn’t as clear-cut as the doctors may have hoped. Milgrim confesses in the middle of the series that he prefers “normal” therapy, compared to Landsberg who says that “no therapist could ever figure her out.” Within these few scenes, Maniac shows how therapy is not a one-size-fits-all type of treatment.
The most endearing thing about Maniac was its focus on friendship. The trailer gives the impression that Milgrim and Landsberg were meant to end up as lovers but, spoiler, it’s pleasantly surprising that that never happens. In the first two episodes, the viewers get to explore the lives of Landsberg and Milgrim and see that they’re alike in more ways than one: they have family problems, suffer from unresolved issues and are lonely. They don’t have anyone close enough to turn to, especially not anyone who understands their trauma and its intersections with their mental illness. All of Milgrim’s past relationships were defined by his schizophrenia and despite that, Landsberg is the first person who wants to be his friend. She understands that his behavior may be motivated by mental illness, but she also understands that he’s more than just his schizophrenia — he’s her friend.
What’s surprising about Maniac is the way the writers wrote the characters. They understood enough to not limit the protagonists to stereotypes and instead let them grow and evolve into more than just their mental illnesses. Audiences deserve to see more than just the same tropes of characters packaged to us in a different setting. The awareness surrounding mental illness that shows like Maniac bring doesn’t only help those who have suffered, but also helps inspire writers to create original characters we would never otherwise have the honour to see.