It’s an exciting approach to an era that’s been pretty well picked over — or could be, if the thought experiment got developed. The 30-minute episodes (critics received all 10) have a comic slant, but the tone is confused, careening from antic — with bodily mutilation played for laughs — to meditative and even mournful. Jack should be a pleasingly absurd protagonist. The series, alas, takes him rather seriously.
And although Crudup is extremely charming, a character billed as a talented closer should, among other things, have a more compelling sales pitch.
“No one here is not a dreamer. Am I right?” Jack says to a group of prospective buyers. “Not in a world like this, where you can have it all. And that’s what I want for you and your families. You wake up to the earthrise out your bedroom window, your wife out in her lunar garden, your boy shagging flies in the zero-G diamond. That’s the dream you all deserve!”
If Don Draper articulated an anxiety or nostalgia specific to his exact moment and presented a product as a balm, Jack’s pitches are general, bordering on redundant. He draws no contrast between the hover-car world where robots take out the trash and the marvels of life on the moon. If anything, Jack equates them: You can have it all here, but you can also live the suburban dream up there. Then there’s some boilerplate about dreams and hope.
Salesmanship aside, this was the show’s opportunity to teach us how the universe of “Hello Tomorrow!” differs from (or parallels!) our own, and how jetpacks and the like modify both the characters’ lived reality and the consumer fantasies a salesman would need to understand. What has all that automation done to Americans in the decade that most fervidly fetishized the nuclear family and glorified the suburbs? Would robots everywhere deprive men returned from war of a sense of purpose? Create mass unemployment? Make marriages better? Accentuate the class divide? Change race relations?
“Hello Tomorrow!” addresses none of this. And although the cinematography foregrounds the fun technology, the plot never investigates its consequences. A company coyly named Amazing Personal Products (or APP) delivers stuff in trucks “manned” by cartoon storks, but a sinister malfunction in the pilot critics were asked not to describe — which seems to herald a deeper exploration of what all those gadgets might be doing to people — goes nowhere.
Basic stuff is puzzling, too: Does the businessman commuting to work via jetpack occupy a different social status (or follow a different traffic system) than the one driving a hover car? And what of the loving housewife seeing him off? The real “atomic age” featured major social retrenchment: Women, having joined the labor force in wartime, were shoved back inside the home and mollified with “labor-saving devices.” What happens if you populate that uneasy moment with even more technological so-called convenience?
An angry housewife named Myrtle Mayburn (Alison Pill) — a character ideally suited to show which specific hopes have been raised, then dashed by a world where even the cooking is automated — conforms so precisely and sometimes comically to type that her grievances, when she airs them, are neither more nor less than what a woman in the regular old robot-free ’60s might say.
In fact, far from describing a “retrofuture” whose specific anomies a gifted salesman could exploit (and that contemporary viewers, plagued and blessed as we are by our own APPs, might find familiar), this alternate reality seems pretty similar. Jack’s pitch feels like typical timeshare patter, because it is: People want exactly the same things in this timeline. New parents want fun. Old people want golf and no taxes.
There are some differences: No one seems particularly racist in the hover-car ’60s, for instance. Or sexist. These would be fascinating revisions if they didn’t seem random and undertheorized. Is the idea that the civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened if robots were around? Did APP eliminate redlining? The aesthetics of one historical moment are supercharged here, but they’re entirely stripped of the struggles that produced them.
Then there’s Jack, a winsome salesman, deadbeat dad and calculating liar who might also be a damaged dreamer.
That Jack is deceptive is clear from the pilot. The question, and it’s not a compelling one, is how deep his fraudulence (or idealism) goes. This might be textbook antihero stuff if a redemption story weren’t supplied to make him sympathetic: Jack is also suddenly trying to help the son he abandoned years earlier by hiring and mentoring him.
If Jack sounds baffling, he should; the series builds suspense by withholding his motivations, desires and real beliefs, and piecing these together feels like enervating moral algebra that neither Jack nor his son, Joey Shorter (Nicholas Podany), are interesting enough to make worthwhile. The effect — not helped by the flatness of most of these characters — isn’t nuance or complexity or even Coen-esque quirk. Haneefah Wood elevates her material, and both Hank Azaria and Jacki Weaver offer comic relief, but this series feels like satire in search of a target.
Hello Tomorrow! (10 episodes) debuts with three episodes Friday on Apple TV Plus. New episodes stream weekly.
Lili Loofbourow recently joined The Washington Post as television critic. She previously worked at Slate and the Week.