'Maniac,' 'The Good Cop' give Netflix flawed dose of star power

Netflix's deluge of original series is such that it's now doubling up on high-profile premieres, with the sa...

Posted: Sep 21, 2018 2:06 PM
Updated: Sep 21, 2018 2:06 PM

Netflix's deluge of original series is such that it's now doubling up on high-profile premieres, with the same-day arrival of "Maniac" -- starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone -- and "The Good Cop," featuring Tony Danza. Each falls short for disparate reasons, as the first show has moments but suffers from a surplus of arty ambition, while the latter feels too much like the third or fourth best series on USA network.

Despite its movie-star appeal, the key name in "Maniac" is Cary Joji Fukunaga, who established himself as a TV auteur by directing the original "True Detective," and was just chosen to direct the next James Bond movie. He's working here with writer Patrick Somerville, whose credits include "The Leftovers," a series to whom this Netflix series -- with its surreal flights of fancy -- owes a considerable debt.

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The basic premise, actually, is pretty mundane. Owen (Hill), a diagnosed schizophrenic pressured by his imperious, wealthy New York family, meets the equally damaged Annie (Stone), who is wrestling with grief from a personal tragedy. But they come together at a clinical drug trial, one that subjects them to a series of pills that unleash elaborate fantasies, with much of the 10-episode storyline playing out in those alternative spheres.

"We're lost without connection. It's quite terrible to be alone," a narrator says near the outset, which is, ultimately, what "Maniac" is all about. The problem is wading through a bent version of reality in order to get there, cutting back and forth between what's happening in the psychic realm and more prosaic concerns about the study and the perhaps-mad scientist (Justin Theroux, another "Leftovers" connection) helping preside over it.

"Maniac" goes out of its way to ooze class, adding Sally Field in a key supporting role as the story progresses. It's unorthodox qualities even extend to the length of the episodes, some of which run less than 30 minutes, others around 45.

That said, the undisciplined nature of the human mind -- which Fukunaga seeks to illustrate -- can present a frustrating maze to navigate. While the leads, especially Stone, are fine, their performances sometimes struggle against the off-kilter nature of the material.

"I know it doesn't make sense ... but it will," Owen is told early on. As it turns out, that's a fair appraisal of the series itself, which finally locates a reasonably satisfying exit, but requires considerable patience in order to get there.

As for "The Good Cop," it isn't a bad show, but such a weightless one as to feel pretty disposable. Tony Danza gets all the good lines as a disgraced former cop, while the title refers to his grown son, TJ, played by Josh Groban, who's as much a straight arrow as his dad is a corner-cutting bent one.

Created by Andy Breckman ("Monk"), the show features the same breezy qualities, focusing on an individual case -- usually quirky -- in each episode. In that respect, it feels like the sort of light crime procedural that has found a home on USA or TNT, at least before they took somewhat darker turns, falling prey to FX envy.

Indeed, unlike most Netflix dramas, there's nothing especially serialized about the show. The only binge-friendly aspect of it -- if you can call it that -- involves mock newspaper headlines, which tease the case that will be featured in the next episode at the end of the previous one.

"The Good Cop" does provide a toothy role for Danza, but not much of a stretch from his well-established TV persona. Then again, Groban probably commands more screen time, playing a detective so buttoned up and by the book he won't even run a red light in the middle of the night when nobody's around, which irritates his old man to no end.

Netflix's burgeoning original lineup allows for all kinds of programming, aimed at various tastes. Even by that measure "The Good Cop" represents the kind of mild pastime that can readily be found elsewhere -- without a subscription.

"The Good Cop" and "Maniac" premiere Sept. 21 on Netflix.

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