There are many reasons to remake something. Sometimes it’s for a built-in audience, other times it’s to recapture something that needs recontextualizing in the current times. Rarely is it the case that a remake is made simply because it can be better than the original. At this point, all we have to go off of Netflix’s upcoming series “Maniac” is a short synopsis and a handful of first-look photos. But what we do have extensive evidence of is the Norwegian series Cary Fukunaga’s impending remake is based on, and it might be the rare exception to that rule.
Hiding in plain sight in the Netflix catalog, all 10 episodes of the original — same spelling and everything — is available to stream right now. Starring and co-created by Espen PA Lervaag, it’s a comedy more absurd in theory than in practice. While staying at a mental facility, Espen winds through a series of fantasies that feature fictional versions of himself and hospital staff. These range from “Lord of the Rings”-style adventures to him being the star of a sex comedy’s American football team.
Every episode bounces between the reality of the hospital and a different reworking of a pre-existing style or series. Most of them follow the same basic arc: Espen has to fulfill some task within the fantasy that only he can see, while back at the hospital, the staff sees him fashion horses out of brooms, guns out of hairdryers, and pantomime an endless string of horny fight scenes. Most of these episodes are built around the surprise of that first reveal, so to say what other shows it apes is almost a spoiler in itself.
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Now, Netflix hasn’t read released any budgetary numbers, but for a series that involves one of its highest-profile casts yet (Jonah Hill, Emma Stone, Sally Field, and Justin Theroux are all part of the ensemble), and a creative team that boasts “True Detective” and “The Leftovers” on their resumes, it’s safe to assume that the budget on this new version of “Maniac” will have significantly more resources than its predecessor. Part of the charm of the original version is that these are scrappy reimagining of things like a World War II mission or a Wild West shootout. Not so, it seems, with what we’ve seen so far of whatever futuristic space capsule the main cast is in these neon-bathed official photos from the Netflix reimagining.
While the machinations of “Maniac” put a spin on a number of different scenarios inside Espen’s own mind, there’s really no thematic difference between each of these episodes. They follow the same trajectory of him dealing with an imaginary friend and his not-so-repressed feelings for Mina, his therapist.
If there’s any variation in the story, it comes from the minor changes in whatever individual quests Espen has fashioned for himself. And so, halfway through the season, you get the idea that this guy is fueled by lust and escapism and not a whole lot else. Lervaag is charming enough to get across Espen’s preoccupations, but for a show that can literally be anything it wants, these ten episodes seem stuck in coming to the same conclusions over and over again.
It seems like part of what the new version might be doing to combat this idea is by introducing another patient. Whether Hill or Stone is more the Espen analog is almost irrelevant. Even if they follow the same format of one patient and one imaginary friend, the different viewpoints from multiple characters would solve the problem of getting stuck in a basic psychoanalytic cycle. If the report is true that both the lead performers “will play patients in the institution,” that gives the rest of this all-star cast to be more than just pawns or objects of desire in one man’s hallucinations.
The best part of this remake process is that the existing “Maniac” doesn’t have any dense mythology to unpack. There’s no puzzle-like plot making a pre-existing template that an American version would have to reinvent or adhere to. With a fairly straightforward alternative already in place, the new version of “Maniac” can do more to make sure that there’s something meaningful in every episode and that each of these fantasy sequences don’t reset to square one when they end.
In the process, “Maniac” 2.0 can also do more to keep the setup of the show from being a simplistic way of treating personality disorders. Espen’s treatment always seems like an afterthought, even as the season progresses and he learns to corral the id-like impulses of his imaginary companion Håkon. If the remake can take the ideas of romantic frustration and family disappointment and do something more constructive with them rather than giving into the whims of the central character, it’ll elevate the show beyond just a simple exercise.
The “pharmaceutical trial” teased in the new series’ synopsis feels like a conscious way to do that. Where the original largely landed on all of this being up to Espen to change, “Maniac” seems like it would benefit from engaging with that extra layer of another reality created from an external source. Rather than sticking solely to vicarious hijinks, introducing an actual treatment into the mix would add depth to a story that seems best when it zeroes in on questions of control.
“Maniac” can literally be anything. Hopping into other fictional worlds is carte blanche to explore anything this series wants. It’s the ultimate reason to give a premise another try, to really play with how a new set of tools can make this premise feel less like a TV show and more like an experience.
The Norwegian “Maniac” is currently available to stream on Netflix. The remake is expected to premiere later in 2018.