Prestige television is in love with the postwar era. Maybe it’s the eye-candy appeal—shapely vintage cars, shapelier women in tight cardigans. Maybe it’s a self-conscious callback to television’s first Golden Age. Or it might have something to do with that recent SNL sketch that (sort of?) put TCM nerds on notice. At any rate, the aggressively phony, consumerist utopia of mid-century America has become a television fixture, with representation ranging from escapist to bleak to somewhere in between. Mad Men, Masters Of Sex, For All Mankind, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and a bunch of other shows demonstrate the array of possible moods this period can provide—and the stories it can tell.
Apple TV+’s Hello Tomorrow! puts its own twist on the formula by establishing a retro-futuristic world full of levitating vehicles serviced by a robot underclass seemingly ripped from a Smeg catalog. Those curious about the show’s genre need only know that the last line of the season is: “Jack, we weren’t really that happy, were we?”
It doesn’t even matter who delivers the line, since it could plausibly come from anyone, even Jack himself. Do not be fooled by the 30-minute run-time: Hello, Tomorrow! is not a comedy, but, rather, a drama dosed with occasional moments of camp. To the extent that it works, the show is anchored by a star turn from Billy Crudup as aging pretty boy Jack Billings, a career salesman who peddles timeshares on the moon. But does the idea of Brightside Lunar Residences, luxury homes affordable to the common man for just a few steady down payments, sound too good to be true? Trust your instinct, folks.
The world of Hello, Tomorrow! is impressive but drab, drained of color and peopled by cold, indifferent technologies. In line with this aesthetic—or, perhaps, motivating it—is an ensemble cast of characters who feel, all too deeply, that which is missing from their lives. There’s Jack’s right-hand woman, Shirley (Haneefah Wood), trapped in an unhappy marriage and in love with another man, and Joey (Nicholas Podany), a junior salesman with a sick mother and a desperate need for a father figure. (Jack will fill that role; he owes him that much, as you’ll discover very early on.) These characters, along with Jack’s acerbic mother, played by the incomparable Jacki Weaver, are the most compelling to watch; they are the best conceived and, not coincidentally, share the most scenes with Crudup’s central conman.
Hank Azaria and Alison Pill play, respectively, a gambling addict (and Shirley’s guy-on-the-side) and a wronged housewife. Unfortunately, they are under-used here, and their storylines feel like filler or unsatisfactory comic relief. Pill’s biggest performative moment comes in the form of a grocery store freak-out. Manicured but twitchy, grasping a burnt microwave dinner, she is dwarfed by the colorful displays selling tomato aspic and pie filling and laundry detergent, not to mention salmon mousse, which is on sale. (Like lunar timeshares, that last one also might be too good to be true). But then she speaks, starting out quietly but ending loud, telling the store owner: “My whole life, I bought it all. All the bullshit, everything I didn’t need for my house, my hair, my waste of a marriage, and you know what? The truth is … it’s all fucking lies!”
That scene encapsulates all that is right and wrong about the show. Like all the actors, Pill’s commitment to the bit is complete, and the set design has been rendered with great care. The moment alludes, explicitly and perhaps spiritually, to pieces from the period, including the noir Double Indemnity and its memorable grocery-store sequences. But perhaps even more, Pill summons the specter of Barbara Bel Geddes, who, in 1958, played the spurned Midge in Vertigo and a murderous housewife in the “Lamb To The Slaughter” episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But while Bel Geddes conveyed everything—rage, desperation, deep hurt—in a quirk of her mouth, in an unblinking stare, Pill has been given words to say. The actress is good enough to show us, so it is unclear why the show insists she tell us too.
Ultimately, the characters’ ennui proves a correlative for the show itself, and that something is missing. One of Crudup’s great gifts as a performer is his ability to generate chemistry with nearly anyone he plays opposite, and Hello Tomorrow! shows off this ability. But anyone who saw him play a wild-eyed network executive in the admittedly soapy first season of The Morning Show know that Crudup balances charm and menace like none other. The character of Jack Billings is often sad, but never bad, and that’s just a missed opportunity.
A gesture that proves too little, too late in this direction comes in the seventh episode, when Billings finds a very rich, very alluring investor (Dagmara Dominczyk) to bankroll the operation and maybe even turn it legitimate. “You’re not in to get ahead, you are in it to get away with something, which is why you would love the moon,” Jack muses, never breaking eye contact. In response to her question about how “empty” the lunar surface really is, he answers, “It’s like when the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat, only there’s no hat … and there’s no rabbit.” Now imagine Billy Crudup purring those lines to a woman who can only whisper in return, “That’s quite a trick.” Good, right?
It’s unfortunate that a show that might have traveled the route of “sexy nihilism” went “glum Norman Rockwell” instead. Stories about seduction need to seduce the viewer, but Hello Tomorrow! evokes dread instead of danger, and, over the course of 10 episodes, the vibe wears thin. So, while the action picks up in the final episodes, it isn’t quite enough to redeem the entire enterprise. Not unlike the purchase of a timeshare, the world of Hello Tomorrow! isn’t a bad place to visit, but it might not be the best long-term investment.
Hello Tomorrow! premieres February 17 on Apple TV+.