Is it in my head? Critical reviews of “Homecoming” and “Maniac” (2018)

Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to refer to two or more physical and psychic phenomena that coincide in a meaningful way. The meaning could be intimate or cosmic, and it is, perhaps, intriguingly related to observer paradox. Either way, it’s a fascinating concept, and it’s a fancy way of saying I just finished watching two TV shows the other day that seemed weirdly similar.

A little overly intellectual for an into, but I thought it was funny. It may even be appropriate.

There is some interesting overlap between Amazon’s “Homecoming” and Netflix’s “Maniac.” Both deal with that ever popular yet intangible realm of the mind. Both are at least wary of psychiatric drugs. Both ask what constitutes healing. Both are willing to question reality.

Neither is original–“Homecoming” is based on a podcast and “Maniac” on a Norwegian TV series–and both are 10 episodes long but only feature one director–respectively Sam Esmail and Cary Joji Fukunaga (both of whom, for what it’s worth, were born in 1977). To see differences, we have to dive into the shows a little deeper.

“Homecoming” tells two parallel stories. In one, Heidi Bergman is an enthusiastic caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a secretive government facility in Florida designed to with PTSD return to civilian life. In the other, Heidi Bergman is a bitter waitress at a restaurant, who is approached one day by an investigator from the Department of Defense following up a complaint about the Homecoming facility four years later.

As each story evolves, both the audience and Bergman learn piece by piece just what was going on at Homecoming, and how the past and the future are terribly related.

Like Esmail’s delightfully trippy “Mr. Robot,” “Homecoming” is a thriller with healthy doses of government cover up and corporate conspiracy. It’s also well paced, handsomely photographed and brilliantly played. Julia Roberts is rightly touted for her small screen debut, but Bobby Cannavale is also great as her slimy supervisor, Shea Whigam is perfectly cast as the thoughtful, dogged investigator and Stephan James instantly believable as an increasingly uncertain young vet.

The decision to photograph the 2018 sequences in one format and the 2022 in a different one is convenient for piecing the story together, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be innovative. I suppose one could find it irritating; I found it largely irrelevant.

Despite that one avant-garde affectation, “Homecoming” is intriguingly old fashioned. The series has been called Hitchcockian, and that’s due to more than its theme of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. The camera movement is worthy of the director, and the soundtrack is not someone ripping off the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone–it actually is Hermann, Morricone and more. The series takes all its musical cues from “Vertigo,” “The Thing” and a host of other classic thrillers.

Netflix’s “Maniac” tells about 37 parallel stories, give or take a tale. They mostly originate from the minds of neurotic Annie Landsberg and psychotic Owen Milgrim, who attempt to escape their personal problems by partaking in a medical trial for a drug that will allegedly make therapy obsolete. The trial involves a succession of pills and sessions with GRTA, an intelligent computer, resulting in hallucinatory dreams that are individualized for each patient to work through their issues.

The problem is–go figure–the experiment is falling apart behind the scenes, and the researchers in charge are scrambling to ensure the survival of their project, as well as their patients, while still pleasing their investors. Despite all that, or perhaps happening on a plane utterly removed from it, Annie and Owen keep crossing the barriers between their dreams and finding each other over and over again. Is it magical or mundane? And does it make any difference?

While “Homecoming” teases out its twists and turns, it is basically accessible. “Maniac” is not. The series operates on the level of metaphor as often–if not more often–than it does on the level of anything like reality. It moves from an alternate reality cyberpunk New York to the worlds of 1980s crime thrillers, 1930s old dark house movies and more, each setting dripping with psychoanalytical significance.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as the two leads have to pull off a variety of characters in each setting, and they do so amazingly well, Stone in particular. A mop wigged Justin Theroux and chain smoking Sonoya Mizuno are also standouts as the hot and cold controllers of the experiment, and Sally Field has fun as the literal and figurative mother of the project.

“Maniac’s” design, photography and set pieces are excellent, and its indie inspired score by Dan Romer is sometimes quite striking, but what really makes the series stand out is its wicked, madcap sense of humor. Between bathtubs full of intestines, bulletproof fur coats and open mouth kisses for mom, very little is sacred in this series.

So which to recommend? At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either show. Both are intelligent, attractive and artistically satisfying. The main difference, deeper even than a preference for conspiracies or metaphysics, is what you want from your streaming experience. If you want a well made and timely thriller, try “Homecoming.” If you’re interested in a cult classic in the making, watch “Maniac.”

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