A date that gets interrupted by a phone call is a pretty popular pop-culture trope, one you can see in countless movies and TV shows. However, it is uncommon for the ringtone to come from a person’s shoe. In 1965, the first episode of Get Smart introduced hapless spy Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) and his portable communication device. Gadgets hidden in everyday objects is a go-to espionage trick, from James Bond to real-life agents, but there is often a lot of truth in fiction.
The shoe phone did not take off, but the size and capabilities of computers from 1965 when viewed next to contemporary smartphones is a leap worthy of science fiction. Even technology from 20 years ago feels like a relic from many centuries ago. With each technological leap, a writer must consider how it will impact the action if a narrative is set in the present day; this is an era when a large number of the population will either own or have access to a cell phone or computer.
A phone call or text message can impact the narrative, whether it is warning someone of dangers untold or sharing a vital piece of information that changes the entire story. Sure, there are ways to avoid the cell-phone savior, whether it is through the phone being on silent, there being no cell service, or the battery having died mid-action. This obstacle is probably most significant to horror, which is why in the new Halloween, Allyson’s (Andi Matichak) phone ends up in a big bowl of dip.
The Umbrella Academy, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Maniac are all set in either the present day or a non-specific era featuring technology far beyond our current capabilities, but recognizable items are absent. The production design aesthetic for each show has a timeless quality, which mixes and matches from different decades, as well as an aversion toward certain everyday tech objects.
Hours spent talking on the phone is peak adolescence, something Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) and Harvey (Ross Lynch) partake in, usually from landline to landline, but this is not really the 1960s. The latter is underscored when Sabrina rings Harvey on his iPhone X. Her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo) also has a laptop. So we know that this is not a screen-free environment, despite first impressions created by the retro aesthetic. If you were beginning to wonder just when Sabrina is set, the flash of an Apple product quickly answers that question. I would argue it is unnecessary and distracting to go from this quasi-'60s setting and throw in something from 2018. Siri is obsolete in a world with powerful magic.
Google and computers are replaced with a trip to the local library to use the microfiche reader, a moment that feels like the characters just stepped into a Stephen King novel (beware the clown). This is a world with talking chimpanzees, robot mothers, and a time-travel briefcase, but not an iPhone or social media. The advanced tech is littered with '50s visuals from the family's Artificial Intelligence — modeled on Grace Kelly and June Cleaver — to the time-travel headquarters location, which further adds to the off-kilter retro quality. There is also the notion that this was a simpler time before computers corrupted society, but that is ignoring the A-bomb, as well prevalent racism and sexism (of course a lot of this still exists now).
Again, there are tricks to isolate Vanya even if she had a phone, but it is noticeable that this version of the world is missing not only what a lot of us spend a lot of time looking at, but also the machines people will be watching these episodes on.
As with The Umbrella Academy, the technology of Maniac is retro-futuristic, but it leans harder into this particular production design aesthetic: an alternate present day, featuring objects that are obsolete, like dot-matrix printers, or recognizable ones that now have new roles (including a robotic dog poop scooper bearing a resemblance to a Roomba). Science fiction can look forward as well as back when world-building, and it is not beholden to the same rules as a straight-up drama. The equipment used in the Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech appears to be rudimentary, but is incredibly sophisticated. The GRTA machine — or Gertie — looks like something from the future as envisioned in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but is a sophisticated AI machine, which takes on the emotional trauma of all the trial subjects.
If Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is most like the world we live in (in terms of technology, not demons), then Maniac is at the other end of the scale. All three shows resist the type of screens the streaming service's viewers are glued to on a daily basis, partly because it doesn’t fit with the overall look, but also because it frees the creator of the burden a smartphone brings. There is also an undeniable nostalgic element to this approach, because retro sells in modern pop culture. Sure, you have a smartphone, but don’t you also want a rotary version that you definitely won’t use, because it looks good? This is a self-burn because I definitely want one of these, even though I don’t know my own landline number without looking it up.
In The Umbrella Academy, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and Maniac, they are dealing with a number of pressing issues. But they don't need Siri or Alexa, because they have superhero powers, magic, and Gertie to guide them through various trials and tribulations. Ultimately, it is the connections with other people, which is at the heart of these stories, that matter rather than the technology that does or does not exist.