Far-fetched fictional pharma study anchors new Netflix series ‘Maniac’

A made-up evil pharma trial takes center stage in an upcoming Netflix series starring A-list actors Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. (Pixabay)(Pixabay/Creative Commons CC0)

Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech’s latest clinical trial is billed as a three-day treatment that can cure the brain of any mental dysfunction. Sound too good to be true? That’s because it is. The fictional pharma company and its made-up miracle drug is at the center of a new Netflix series set to debut Sept. 21.

Bigtime Hollywood actors Emma Stone and Jonah Hill star as two of ten trial participants in what Netflix calls “a mind-bending pharmaceutical trial gone awry.” The trailer dropped Tuesday. In it, the trial participants take the drugs and go on intersecting fantasy mind trips, worrying about not being able to tell the difference between what's real and what isn't.

It’s not the first time fictional pharma companies have been cast in the evil villain role, of course. In 1993, actor Harrison Ford as “The Fugitive” tried to prove his innocence after his wife was mistakenly murdered by a one-armed man hired by faux pharma company Devlin MacGregor. The company’s mythical drug, Provasic, had been proven by Ford’s character Dr. Kimble to cause liver damage, and so the doctor was the actual intended victim.

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More recently, in a 2012 horror movie, two college students signed up for an allergy research trial that included a two-week inpatient stay at a creepy research facility. Unsurprisingly, the drugs ended up more potent than nasal sprays and antihistamines.

The timing for the new Netflix series could certainly be better for the pharma industry. Its general reputation is foundering in a morass of pricing debacles and tit-for-tat political gamesmanship. Clinical trials, specifically, are continually underenrolled and still serve as breeding grounds for suspicion among consumers.

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The FDA rallied this year to push for increased participation and more diversity in clinical trials, even though it does not run them itself, and did acknowledge the difficulty in signing on a diverse group of patients who may be concerned about old tropes of becoming “guinea pigs.”

And the Netflix series may not go far in allaying those fears. In the trailer, actress Sally Field asks the head trial doctor, “How many of your subjects have ended up catatonic?” He responds arrogantly, “None"—then pauses and adds, “Roughly.”