By Sarah Osman
You don’t see this often on commercial TV: a nihilistic exposé of consumerism.
If you’ve ever wondered what The Jetsons combined with Mad Men would look like, then Hello Tomorrow! is the show for you. Apple TV+’s newest drama (don’t let the 30-minute run time fool you; this isn’t a comedy) takes place in a retro-futuristic version of America where robots mix drinks, hover cars are the norm, and black-and-white cartoon birds drive trucks and accidentally run over people. At the same time, ’50s fashion reigns supreme, women are still expected to be perfect housewives, and the slang hasn’t progressed past 1960. This is the futuristic/anachronistic world of Hello Tomorrow! Jack Billings (Billy Crudup) and his ragtag team of salesmen make a living selling timeshares on the moon. However, as the old adage goes, if it all seems too good to be true, it probably is.
What is unquestionably good is Hello Tomorrow!‘s costume design, art design, and production team. Its vibrant yet realistic mix of steampunk, midcentury, and retro aesthetics is unlike anything else on TV. Visual marvels, including self-popping popcorn buckets and aqua-green singing robots, are the norm in this world. The behind-the-scenes crew members are true wizards and should snag some awards. They’ve come up with a glimpse of life to come that’s filled with plenty of eye-popping wow.
“Wow” is the word Jack relies on to sell his shares of the moon. He launches, with little to no encouragement, into Don Draper-esque speeches about the importance of chasing one’s dreams, of not living with regret for opportunities passed over. He preys on those who have hit hard times. Their lives have been overwhelmed by technology, and he convinces them that their way out of misery is (ironically) through technology. At the same time, Jack is nursing a Don Draper mystery of his own: he left his wife and baby son. After his wife is hit by one of those silly cartoon birds and ends up in a coma, Jack’s mother begs him to spend time with his now 20-year-old son, Joey (Nicholas Podany). He offers Joey a job, and the mutual selling of dreams begins. The crux of the story would seem to be Jack and Joey: Jack discovers that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Their relationship should be at the heart of the narrative, but it is quickly pushed aside by other subplots.
Jack’s team consists of Eddie (Hank Azaria), a low-level gambling degenerate whose talent is being underutilized. He’s dating Jack’s right-hand woman Shirley (Haneefah Wood), who for some reason puts up with Eddie’s nonsense. Shirley is the character who grounds Jack; she is the first to see through his slick facade. There’s Herb (Dewshane Williams), a perky salesman who is married to his job and under the thumb of his social climber wife, Betty (Susan Heyward). At times, these supporting characters are a lot of fun, but, because they are so typical of the ’50s, they often come across as flat stereotypes. We don’t learn much about what makes them tick — beyond that they want to be rich. They are often as hollow as the upwardly mobile dreams they hawk to themselves and others.
Hello Tomorrow!‘s biggest flaw lies in its cynical tone and vision. You don’t see this often on commercial TV: a nihilistic exposé of consumerism. No one on this show is all that happy or satisfied with what they have. They are driven by one desire: to have more of the good life, whether it’s a bigger house, a luxurious escape, or an expensive dream to chase. That is all too true of too many on the make in America today. The problem is that Hello Tomorrow! does not have the courage of its critique. A weird current of camp undercuts the story’s serious satire of the insatiability of capitalism.
That fear of making the viewer uncomfortable means the world Jack lives in lacks compelling detail. And that is not just a matter of not dealing with the reality of poverty in his nice shiny society. I guess we are supposed to ignore, just as Jack’s clients do, the list of specifics in the timeshare contracts. How does this scam work? New buyers don’t seem to have enough to make a down payment, yet Jack and other salesmen walk away from sales with bags of money. We are told that only the wealthy can afford to live on the moon, but there are also moon mines. Couldn’t someone make the trip, prospect those mines, and strike it rich? Being told how this society works would be a help: even a simple advertisement or news article would alleviate some of the confusion. Still, the vagueness might be defensive; learning too much might raise potentially hazardous political issues. The ’50s was not an era celebrated for its political enlightenment, except by the MAGA crowd. (Also, in terms of storytelling, the writers reveal a major secret early on that should have been kept secret for a while longer.)
Crudup shines as the mysterious and charismatic salesman. The role could be dismissed as a rip-off of Don Draper, but Crudup injects the perfect amount of misery and dreamer into the tormented character of Jack. One moment he looks truly as miserable as he feels; the next he oozes charm. Jack embodies the series’ paranoid theme: nothing is as it seems and no amount of zippity-doo-dah technology can cloak the painful downsides of the human experience. We tell ourselves endless lies about how we can magically rise above our anguish and solve our chronic afflictions: if we just had a different house, if we just reinvented ourselves. But, as Jack points out, it is impossible for us to outrun our problems — even if we buy condos on the moon.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman
“mix of steampunk, midcentury, and retro” — or said more simply: The future as it really was envisioned by people in the 1950s. As such, its impressively faithful to that world and a ton of fun.