Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Media Reviews: January 2019

Perhaps in reaction to the medium’s general fascination with antiheroes and outright villainy, many recent genre-bending science fiction and fantasy shows have aimed their narrative sights at a common theme: the challenges of living ethically in an unforgiving, problematic world. Examples of genre hybrids playing effectively in this sandbox are numerous: the philosophical afterlife antics of The Good Place, the fantastical animated satire of BoJack Horseman, the splendid, superheroic empathy of Sense8, the hilarious, magical concoction of music and mental health that is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. If this month’s offerings are any indication, the trend—which is a welcome one—still has legs.

Maniac
Created by Cary Joji Fukunaga & Patrick Somerville
Produced by Parliament of Owls, Rubicon TV, Anonymous Content, Paramount Television
Released September 2018

Maniac, a ten-episode miniseries from Netflix, is one of the more fascinating recent shows to cross my screen. It’s directed by emerging TV auteur Cary Joji Fukunaga, who made a splash with the superb, genre-defying first season of HBO’s True Detective.

Maniac holds up a distorted mirror to the troubled collective psyche of America in a manner that simultaneously confronts its darkest undercurrents and delivers a much-needed message of hope. Set in an out-of-time retrofuture reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s classic film Brazil, the series tells a tale of star-crossed connection between two individuals with troubled personal lives and complex mental health issues. Owen Milgrim (Jonah Hill) is the schizophrenic black sheep of a rich, powerful family, working to overcome his own problems even as manipulative relatives try to take advantage of him in protection of the family business empire. Meanwhile, aimless ne’er-do-well Annie Landsberg (Emma Stone) struggles to overcome a traumatic event in her past with the help of dangerous black market pharmaceuticals. Their paths converge at the facilities of a Japanese biotech firm, where they both enlist as test subjects in an experimental clinical trial. The trial’s ambitious goal? Merely curing the world of its psychological ills. Owen signs up to elude his family and make some money; Annie cons her way into the program to acquire more of the drugs that sustain her self-destructive grieving.

But their fates are intertwined, thanks to a glitch in the AI that manages the experiment, which involves a sequence of psychotropic drug experiences designed to thrust the subjects into conflict with their darkest secrets and fears during VR-like hallucinations. The subjects are supposed to experience the process individually, but Annie and Owen’s simulations accidentally merge. This wreaks havoc on the trial, but might also be the key to their salvation.

Depicting a contemporary-seeming world more bonkers than the present is a pretty tall order these days, but Maniac pulls it off with panache. Its world is a weird, funhouse-mirror reflection of reality, a surreal visual time-warp of attitudes, styles, and technologies. One might describe the irreal SFnal backdrop as a mash-up of 1980s cyberpunk, modern social media, and the inside of Philip K. Dick’s brain. Among other things, people lease out their image rights to digital advertisers, hire actors to pretend to be their friends, and make extra money by letting ad reps follow them around to pitch new products. These gonzo worldbuilding notions grow out of current, topical issues, but the tropes and furniture are deliciously, comically retro. It’s like an absurdist, complex metaphor for the present that might have been written by some wildly inaccurate, if imaginative, science fiction writer of yesteryear: The details are all wrong, but the feel is right and the themes are fascinating.

For all its cinematic acumen, what makes Maniac special is its emotional core. The fictional world on display here is every bit as chaotic, challenging, and disorienting as our own, but Maniac isn’t wallowing in cynical social commentary. It’s far more concerned with the effects of the world on its flawed, floundering, sympathetic heroes. The wobbly reality of the worldbuilding serves to create an important layer of distance from the dark subject matter, admitting the viewer warmly into the characters’ efforts.

Both leads, especially Stone, deliver exceptional performances, enhancing a crucial current of hope that bubbles along beneath the story’s dark psychological surface. And that message of hope hinges on a core truth that’s easy to lose sight of in these divisive times—we’re better off being in it together than we are going it alone. For its audacious mix of layered themes, striking visuals, and heartfelt messaging, Maniac is a timely work of art, gloriously messy, genuine, and unexpectedly inspiring.

Counterpart
Created by Justin Marks
Produced by Gilbert Films, Anonymous Content, Gate 34, Media Rights Capital, Studio Babelsberg, Starz Originals
First season released December 2017

The dark intrigues of Counterpart’s alternate reality scenario may seem like the polar opposite of Maniac’s extravagant science fantasy, but the shows possess distinct thematic similarities—and Counterpart, too, is a unique genre hybrid. Coherent and calculated, Counterpart is exceptional multiverse spy fiction, like a filmic collaboration between John le Carré and Franz Kafka.

Set appropriately in Berlin, it stars J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk, a low-ranking cog in the clockwork machinery of an international intelligence agency. A lonely, simple man whose wife is on life support in the wake of a car accident, Howard sleepwalks through his shifts encrypting and exchanging nebulous coded conversations. He doesn’t entirely understand his role in the scheme of things—nor does he question it. That all changes when his superiors draw him into a conspiratorial meeting with . . . himself. The agency, it turns out, sits on a portal to an alternate world which splintered off during a mysterious event thirty years earlier. It’s been diverging historically ever since, and over time, an elaborate system of diplomacy and intelligence exchange has developed between the two worlds. Howard’s otherworldly counterpart is a high-ranking, badass field agent who has become a double agent in order to prevent interworld tensions from escalating into all-out war—a mission he needs Howard’s help to accomplish.

Counterpart seamlessly combines the tropes of two distinct genres, blending the secrets and schemes of the espionage thriller with the nuanced science fictional worldbuilding of a classic alternate worlds tale. On first glance, the balance may seem tilted slightly in favor of the spy-fi elements; after all, twisty plot mechanics and spy agency office politics drive the action. Much of the surface story involves the Howards’ mutual search for an other-world assassin named Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco) who has crossed over on an ominous, world-threatening mission, and even more narrative threads involve the schemes of intelligence officers on either side of the portal, all of them piecing together clues and uncovering each others’ agendas. In these respects, it’s a spy fiction fan’s dream, with the strategic Berlin backdrop a masterstroke of location casting: What better place for an interdimensional cold war? The intrigue is given compelling life by a terrific roster of international actors, including Serraiocco, Olivia Williams, Nazanin Boniadi, Harry Lloyd, Ulrich Thomsen, Nicholas Pinnock, Liv Lisa Fries, Richard Schiff, and Stephen Rea, among many others—all perfectly cast, inhabiting the secret world effortlessly.

By no means do the science fictional aspects take a back seat to spy fiction structure, however. Indeed, the unfolding political intrigue gradually reveals neat layers of alternate-reality worldbuilding, as nuances between the two worlds come to light. These SFnal elements aren’t drastic or flashy—Fringe, in its mid-run heyday, may still be the more colorful gold standard in this particular subgenre. But Counterpart’s subtle parallels are sly and unsettling, suitably informing both the structure and theme of the story. This is particularly true as it pertains to the internal, psychological conflicts of the characters, many of whom are aware of their counterparts. What could be more psychologically penetrating than for a person to meet, or spy on, or even sanction the murder of an alternate-reality version of yourself? This is where the show sinks in its emotional hooks, and also where J.K. Simmons commands the series. Clueless, gentle, devoted Howard is our primary viewpoint, our introduction to this conspiratorial mirror-world. For him, confronting snarky, foul-mouthed, violent Howard is like coming face-to-face with a dark version of himself, his own Evil Kirk. Their encounters force him to question his every life choice and contemplate the hidden corners of his personality that might connect him to a more dangerous, cynical version of himself—one he finds repulsive. The Howards aren’t the only counterparts thrust into conflict with one another, but their ongoing reckoning—which culminates in spectacular drama late in the season—serves as the show’s powerful thematic foundation.

Counterpart does suffer from some logistical shortcomings. Surely a conspiracy this vast, with this many moving parts across two worlds, would be far more difficult to keep under wraps. And wouldn’t the agencies entrusted with keeping this secret have stricter physical security safeguards, considering the likelihood of doppelgängers with identical biometrics? It also seems likely the very existence of the agency would have a far more drastic effect on the historical divergences between the two worlds. If you look at it all too closely, the picture looks a little muddy. Yet somehow these kinds of doubts don’t diminish the show’s power. Indeed, they may even contribute to the unnerving, unreal ambience of it all, enhancing a sense of eerie mystery that is masterfully crafted. Overall, Counterpart is a slick piece of work that uses its SFnal premise to dramatize inner conflicts in an intricate and insightful way, cleverly planting a seed in the viewer’s mind: How would you live your life differently?

Christopher East

Christopher East

Christopher East is a writer, editor, reviewer, and avid consumer of science fiction, fantasy, and spy fiction. His stories have been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Cosmos, Interzone, Talebones, The Third Alternative, and a number of other speculative fiction publications. He’s attended the Clarion and Taos Toolbox writing workshops, and served for several years as the fiction editor for the futurism, science, and technology blog Futurismic. He blogs extensively about writing, fiction, film, television, music, comics, and more at www.christopher-east.com. Currently he lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works for an occupational and environmental health and safety consultancy.