Hello Tomorrow! Is Old-Hat Retrofuturism

Apple’s new series Hello Tomorrow! tries to milk Mad Men postwar pathos from a Jetsons premise. But “difficult men” prestige TV has run out of gas.

Billy Crudup as Jack Billings in Hello Tomorrow!. (Apple TV+, 2023)

“Desperation is a salesman’s greatest asset,” says Eddie, a traveling salesman peddling condos and time-shares on the moon in the new Apple TV+ series Hello Tomorrow!. As Eddie, who is also a gambling addict, Hank Azaria brings a wonderfully cynical self-loathing to everything he says. Seeming to leak soul-toxins from his very pores, Eddie is the salesman manifesting most clearly that Brightside Lunar Residences are a sad scam reflecting desperation on every side, taking in sellers as well as buyers.

The brilliant Billy Crudup plays Jack Billings, a relentlessly smiling true believer who’s head of the sales team. His upbeat patter rings ever hollower as we’re let in on his rationalizing self-deceptions — including sincere sales-pitch paeans to the family, though he deserted his wife and infant son almost twenty years earlier. At a routine sales event in the town of Vistaville, he encounters his son Joey (Nicholas Podany), now a wistful young man taking care of his mother, Jack’s former wife, who’s lapsed into a coma after being hit by a self-driving delivery vehicle. Jack’s solution is to hire Joey as a Brightside salesman trainee without telling him he’s his father.

Rounding out the Brightside team are the uptight, anxiously grinning Herb (Dewshane Williams), a new father expecting twins and obsessed with beefing up his sales numbers, and Shirley (Haneefah Wood), the unflappably practical business manager who seems too smart to be cheating on her husband with Eddie. Alison Pill plays as a desperate housewife who breaks out of a sterile home by literally setting it on fire and purchasing a condo on the moon, only to discover that she’s gone from a small domestic trap to a larger existential one.

The retrofuturism of the show’s design takes the overfamiliar mid-century modernism of the 1950s and gooses it up with old-fashioned sci-fi inventions like clunky robot bartenders and massively tail-finned hover cars and gratuitous gadgets like auto-firing newspaper delivery wagons and cheese-generating nacho towers.

As production designer Maya Sigel describes it,

There’s the optimism and the idea of hope for the future and selling people this hopeful future. . . . And then there’s also the reality, which is this limitless capitalism and consumerism, and this idea that it’s never enough. People, no matter how many gadgets they have that they think will make their lives better, it will never be enough.

Locating soul-rotting desperation under a veneer of slick, plentiful materialism during the 1950s through early 1960s — the era most often cited nostalgically as representing the good life in America — is unfortunately a very familiar move to make at this point. In fact, Hollywood’s been at it since the actual 1950s through early 1960s with films like Rebel Without a Cause, Sweet Smell of Success, Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, It’s Always Fair Weather, Executive Suite, The Best of Everything, Career, and The Cobweb. The hit AMC series Mad Men reestablished the same themes for contemporary audiences with the same posh, stylized package.

There’s an automatic reflex on the part of those who hype new shows like Hello Tomorrow! when they come along looking like prestige TV, with important themes and high production values and intricate color schemes and an excellent cast. Every site recommending the “Best New Series” for the month trots a show like this out as one to watch.

But in spite of the strenuous efforts of so much talent involved, Hello Tomorrow! is pretty dull. The rictus grins of men in nice suits who’ve conned people so long they’re lost in the Big Con of American culture is old-hat material that can’t be buffed up to look like new again.

And the exhausted quality of Hello Tomorrow!, with its vague, washed-out resemblance to Mad Men, seems yet another indication of the demise of the most recent “Golden Age of TV” that generated such a number of long-read pieces in recent years. It was an era widely considered to have begun with The Sopranos in 1999, inaugurating the twenty-year period of “anything goes” inventiveness that led to so many landmark series centered around the trials and tribulations of “dark men in dark times doing dark things.” But according to one account, the era was already declared dead ten years ago.

And though that dark men/dark times/dark things definition seems too narrow, it’s also recognizable as a dominant strain of programming that takes in such memorable series as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and The Wire.

In evoking this tradition, Hello Tomorrow! actually seems dated, an odd fate for a retrofuturistic show. The weak half-heartedness of the “comedy” in this “dramedy” also indicates an inability to go at the Mad Men mystique with convincing savagery, as if it were still too embedded in the emotional logic of the shows that went before to be truly funny. And that’s making these depressed men and their dark doings an increasingly pointless bummer.