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Saturday, February 18, 2023

What's Up with Hello, Tomorrow!?

When I first saw the trailer for Hello, Tomorrow! on AppleTV+, I was pretty excited. "They made a show just for me!" I enthused, charmed by the retrofuturist production design. 

But having watched the first two episodes, I find the show's purpose and tone extremely puzzling. So far, the story plays out as a standard dramedy about a man (Jack Billings, played capably by Billy Crudup) trying to reconcile with his son while at the same time playing some kind of long con on people who think they're buying condos on the Moon, not knowing that they're buying nothing but a dream. 

Here's the problem: the creatives behind the show have gone to great lengths to deliver attractive, colourful props, sets, and visuals to evoke an atomic-age America that somehow got to the Moon early and has self-tying ties, hovering cars, and a variety of friendly service robots to boot, all with a convincing 1950s aesthetic. But the story they're telling could have been told in a perfectly ordinary modern setting at far less expense and with far less distraction--because in Hello, Tomorrow!, the exotic setting plays no role at all, as far as I can see, in the show's thesis--whatever that thesis may turn out to be. 

Compare Hello, Tomorrow! to Severance, another show found on AppleTV+. The latter show also has excellent production design and a science-fictional premise, but in Severance, the technology and setting are essential to the questions it's trying to ask: What is the nature of human identity? Who qualifies for basic human rights? Can human rights be surrendered for personal convenience? Is the nature of working for money inherently coercive? 

I cannot yet identify the big questions Hello, Tomorrow! is trying to ask. It's not "How would society change if we built colonies on the Moon?" It's not "How would the widespread adoption of robots in the service industry disrupt the economy?" (We see one character who's lost his job because of robots, but it's a throwaway line, not deeply examined.) 

Based on Jack Billings' dialogue and actions, the show is apparently trying to say something about societal malaise. Billings tells his employees that their efforts to sell Moon condos give people hope, and a better future to look forward to. Setting aside the fact that Billings clearly can't actually get people to the Moon, at one point he confides to his son that he shouldn't buy property on the Moon because going there won't solve his problems; his problems will simply follow him. So Billings doesn't believe what he's selling. 

But more importantly, the show's setting seems not only prosperous, but in some ways idyllic. Everyone we meet enjoys retrofuturistic conveniences in safe, clean neighbourhoods, and everyone seems able to afford a beautiful hovercar. Furthermore, racism seems to be nonexistent, based on how black and white characters, major and minor, treat each other. And yet I don't think this is related to the show's thesis, because the show plays as if there's been no change in race relations; it's just the way this world is. I get the feeling even this artistic choice is more about real-world production; the casting department simply cast a variety of actors of different races, which of course is as it should be. But without some hint of societal evolution, this choice doesn't justify the show's setting. 

I'm not going to write off the show yet; it's quite possible the creators are building a thesis of some kind, and either I'm just not seeing it or it needs further development to become clear. 

I want to like this show, but so far, I'm only puzzled. 

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