Screen Test

Weird drama and wordplay

When trippy shows such as apocalypse drama The Leftovers (2014 to 2017) and cyber-thriller Mr Robot (2015 to present) began popping up a few years ago, critics dubbed it the era of "weird television".

It reached "peak weird" last year when Legion, American Gods and the Twin Peaks reboot hit the screen. Flouting narrative convention was suddenly in vogue and mainstream audiences were more accepting than ever of series blurring the lines between real and imaginary.

But the new Netflix drama Maniac is a smidge late to the party with its entry - the story of two strangers, Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), who lie their way into a dubious pharmaceutical trial.

The drug being tested claims to fix any ailment, from psychosis to heartbreak, by triggering a series of dream states that help people work out their issues.

For Owen, the misfit son of a prominent family, those issues involve a psychotic break and paranoid delusions.

Shiftless Annie, meanwhile, uses the drug to obsess over a broken relationship with her sister, finding a perverse joy in reliving the terrible car accident they were in.

 Live In London is a comedy special from New Zealand duo (from left) Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.
Flight Of The Conchords: Live In London is a comedy special from New Zealand duo (from left) Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. PHOTO: HBO


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The setting is an alternate present - a sort of dystopia-lite world that recalls the films of Stanley Kubrick and Charlie Kaufman. Viewers see this in both the drug-testing laboratories and the characters' trippy dreams, where they act out everything from a crime caper to a Tolkien-esque fantasy.

As the show jumps between these mini movies, common threads of pain and trauma emerge - an evocative illustration of how the mind processes, rationalises and ultimately distorts information and memories.

Maniac is absolutely absorbing in those moments, but they are far too few and the show never really connects the dots (even though, granted, not all dots need be connected when talking about the subconscious).

The result feels like weird for weird's sake. As stylish as Maniac is, the wild variations in tone and setting smack of a film-maker flexing his cinematographic muscle just because he can, narrative coherence and purpose be damned. It might work for a two-hour arthouse movie, but 10 episodes are too much.

For a more manageable dose of weirdness, there is Flight Of The Conchords: Live In London, a comedy special from New Zealand duo Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement.

In their acclaimed television show Flight Of The Conchords (2007 to 2009), they played a clueless folk-rock duo trying to make it in New York City, their career and relationship troubles occasionally told through silly, offbeat songs.

Filmed in London, this stand-up special recaptures that and their unique brand of Kiwi quirkiness, which channels a very specific antipodean frequency of gentle self-mocking and deadpan.

Apart from comedian Adam Sandler in a former life, hardly anyone does the comedy-song thing any more, and without the constraint of a sitcom, McKenzie and Clement are free to unleash their talents on a random collection of subjects, ranging from pathetic office romances to deadbeat single dads.

A big part of the joke has always been their off-key singing and oddball cadence, but the pair have a real gift for musical parody. They brilliantly send up the range-challenged Pet Shop Boys with their sing-talking as well as the campy French pop of the 1970s, plus an assortment of rock 'n' roll tropes.

Some of the humour is occasionally too gentle, though - their personae's deliberately lame wordplay can get old and some songs and gags go on for a bit too long.

But the whole thing makes for a nice change of pace from the usual stand-up comedy on offer these days.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2018, with the headline 'Weird drama and wordplay'. Subscribe