Design Fiction in the Act: Maniac (Ep1) The Chosen One
An investigation and interrogation of background evidence hidden in plain sight.
This week, let's hop into the janky time machine and gather around the newly-installed display screen. Kick up your feet and grab a drink, but whatever you do, don't press the button labeled "Do Not Push - Ever." Let's settle in and watch Episode 1 of Netflix's Maniac (2018), starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. I'm excited to see what Design Fiction artifacts we'll discover today.
Two strangers are drawn to a mysterious pharmaceutical trial for a drug that they're assured will, with no complications or side-effects whatsoever, permanently solve all of their problems. Things do not go as planned.
I've watched the beginning of this episode several times, and it stands out as unique within the series. In the first few minutes, we're presented with a wealth of worldbuilding evidence that suggests an alternate future, past, or timeline where the 80s occur after the 2000s.
Our first clue comes after the animated intro to the universe, when Emma Stone's character enters a bodega. On the separation glass, we see the iconic "No" sign (a red circle with a line through it) which appears to read "AD BUDDY NOT ACCEPTED HERE" in the bottom left corner.
The reverse shot (below) in this scene confirms our suspicions (bottom right corner), and the scene continues with Emma Stone's character attempting to pay with AD BUDDY. However, the clerk remains steadfast in not accepting it, adding to the sense that we're witnessing a different reality altogether.
What's great about this Design Fiction artifact is that it's noticeable without being too obvious. The characters immediately acknowledge it in their dialogue, and it's later hilariously paid off in the first act when we discover what AD BUDDY actually is.
It feels like a deliberate choice to train the viewer's attention to the details early on, setting a perceptive tone. This sets off a chain of worldbuilding Easter eggs that quickly paint a vivid picture of this environment.
Let's take a closer look at some of the ads, articles, signage, and posters that are scattered throughout the first act of this episode. Later, I'll also share some observations I've made about Design Fiction in film.
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