The trailer for Netflix's Maniac made the show seem like a dark sci-fi thriller, something in the realm of Black Mirror. But where Black Mirror tends to make big, usually bleak statements about humans and technology, Maniac is lighter and less concerned with technology itself, using its sci-fi conceit to examine human emotion and interaction. Also, it's just a hell of a lot of fun.

The show follows Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), two strangers with issues who enroll in a pharmaceutical trial for a three-step drug intended to eradicate all human pain. It's set in a dystopian-ish New York that feels both retro and futuristic, where cell phones don't exist and ad services substitute for currency. Due to a glitch in the AI computer administering the trial, Annie and Owen's reactions to the drug become chemically intertwined; they start experiencing joint trial simulations, forging a connection with one another as the drug forces them to confront their inner demons together.

And boy, do these two have demons. Annie struggles with addiction and depression after the loss of her sister in a car crash; Owen has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is the black sheep in the rich and cold Milgrim family. The trial's simulations provide a series of wacky scenarios in which Annie and Owen act out various facets of their personalities and traumas; in one episode, they're an '80s long-island couple on a Coen brothers-like adventure, in another they’re con artist exes reuniting to steal from a cult.

Stone's ability to balance toughness with emotional honesty prevents Annie from becoming a two-dimensional 'damaged girl', while Hill does arguably the best work of his career as the soft, self-loathing Owen. He plays the character with warm restraint, conveying the depth of Owen's love and pain with each tired smile. The real joy, though, is watching the two Superbad veterans act together; the show is strongest when it keeps Annie and Owen in each other's heads. As they tumble through world after world, Stone and Hill skillfully differentiate each simulated character while keeping a strong sense of Owen and Annie throughout, allowing their bond to grow in each absurd setting. It's a treat watching these two get to know each other – or, the different versions of themselves.

All this is just the main action; there's a whole other storyline unfolding in the drug lab while Annie and Owen are inside the simulations. To avoid spoiling too much, I'll just say that the disgraced inventor of the drug, Dr. James Mantleray (a wonderfully all over the place Justin Theroux), is forced to run the trial after a surprise death and things don't go according to plan. This secondary plot features both a grieving AI computer and Mantleray's narcissistic therapist mother, both played to perfection by Sally Field. It's arguably even more ridiculous than the simulations themselves, and yet it works, too, because it's grounded in the same emotional honesty: Mantleray, like Annie and Owen, is just looking for a way to escape the pain. 

That said, the show's emotional honesty isn't always successful, especially in its most dramatic moments. Annie's grieving process is a bit overdone (there's a few too-many Emmy-bait speeches for Stone, although she delivers each one with aplomb) and Owen's journey feels shortchanged by comparison. The conclusion, too, feels just a little too neat, almost calculatedly cathartic.

But Maniac isn't a drama – it's dark comedy, and a really funny one. The show's zany tone allows it to take nonsensical swerves that only land because Maniac wants us to laugh at them. At one point in the simulation, Owen literally turns into a hawk, and it's one of the funniest and sweetest sequences I've seen in a long time. These moments of absurdity are Maniac's biggest strength. They gesture towards ways of finding excitement, joy, and even love amidst trauma, taking the characters outside of their isolation and into the bizarre, where new worlds await.

With so much going on, and a tone that walks such a fine line between the serious and the ridiculous, Maniac could easily just be an empty mess. But director Cary Fukunaga and creator Patrick Somerville have simultaneously built their visual world with total excess and extreme care. Fukunaga keeps masterful control of the style the entire time, saturating the screen with meditative reds, blues, and whites that stitch together the many settings. The show also rewards multiple viewings, hiding recurring symbols and references – hawks, popcorn – throughout every episode.

These Easter eggs don't build toward a Westworld-style grand mystery for audiences to solve; Maniac doesn't have a conspiracy at its core. Underneath the zaniness, this is a relatively straightforward story about mental health, coping, and connection. In an early episode, Owen tells Annie that there's a grand design to life; she later responds that no big plan exists – the world is chaos. By the end, it's unclear who's correct, and it doesn't particularly matter. What matters are the connections we build and the choices we make; the rest is out of our hands.