Don’t fall for AppleTV+’s retro-futurist tale, no matter how good it looks.
Hello Tomorrow! is a lot like its lead character Jack Billings (Billy Crudup). It looks great, for one. For another, it keeps dancing in the hopes that you won’t catch on to exactly how hollow its charms are, even when the music stops. And, like Billings, you almost want Hello Tomorrow! to get away with it. Unfortunately, they’re both running confidence games that they can’t land.
In the case of Crudup’s “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” sales manager, the hustle is selling timeshares on the Moon. In an early scene, Crudup sells a drunk and miserable Sal (Michael Harney) a slice of our natural satellite by selling him on the idea of hope. Like so many components of the American Dream, the object bought is only part of the equation. The feeling is what we’re all really chasing. The fact that a robot waitress witnesses the proceedings only pulls that into starker relief. This is a world of tech beyond even our current measure. Why shouldn’t a man own a bit of happiness in outer space?
It’s a compelling scene. It sells us on both the aesthetic–live-action Jetsons tech meets Don’t Worry Darling style–and the mood. This isn’t the false 1950s a certain segment of America longs to realize in the present. In some ways, it seems more honest about the emotions of the time. With the economy in boom, those who aren’t as successful or are but still unhappy despite their success feel even more left behind. Keeping up with the Joneses is hard and miserable work. Hello Tomorrow! is surprisingly good at capturing that in this short scene.
Unfortunately, the series is never as good as that first scene’s high water mark. The farther we get from the opener, the further that tone fades into the background. Crudup continues to preach his gospel of gripping tight to hope through purchasing power. The poor suckers eating it up, though, sadly get less and less of the spotlight. The only exception is Myrtle Mayburn (Alison Pill), a miserable homemaker who falls for the Moon’s promise so hard she literally torches her old life. Her dawning realization that change isn’t instantaneous and salespeople don’t always have your best interest at heart stands in for every other consumer’s disappointments. The scene where she trashes a grocery store in misplaced rage is great fun but also reveals how Hello Tomorrow! is losing its grip on tone.
In its place, the show centralizes Crudup’s attempts to keep his timeshare business from collapsing. As anyone who knows media about salespeople and unseen plots of land can guess, things are not entirely on the up and up with the group’s moon colony housing. It can be fun to watch Crudup spin, spin, spin. He has an excellent gift for sincere insincerity, the kind that lets the audience know he’s full of it while still reading as totally convincing within the world of the show. Still, so much focus on Crudup’s machinations further alienates the show from that first scene.
Unfortunately, the series is never as good as that first scene’s high water mark.
When not focused on Crudup’s increasingly desperate maneuvering, much of the show focuses on his team of salespeople. His most trusted lieutenant Shirley (Haneefah Wood), is a former member of a corporate telephone pool who threw her lot in with Billings after they ditched their previous employer. She’s hungrier for more—responsibility, money, success, love—and baffled by Billings repeated attempts to corral her best ideas. After memorable but small turns in sitcoms like Murderville, Wood is undeniably impressive. The world of Hello Tomorrow! is post-racial but otherwise as restrictive for Shirley as the 50s were for women. Her efforts to grab for the brass ring at work while navigating her failing marriage, her affair, and her ever-increasing sense that something is rotten on the Moon make her easily the show’s most interesting character.
Gambling addict Eddie (Hank Azaria), naïve newcomer Joey (Nicholas Podany), and anxious to be the boss’s pet Herb (Dewshane Williams) round out the cast. Azaria is reliable, as usual. He gets to go deeper on the pathos than he has in a while. The way he mixes humorous defiance and desperation in his interactions with local leg breaker Big Fred (W. Earl Brown, off to a strong 2023) is a good bit of acting. Williams’ true believer routine, especially when paired with his considerably angrier and more cutthroat wife Betty (Susan Heyward) is also plenty entertaining.
Despite all these strong performances, Hello Tomorrow! loses control of itself in the back half of the season. Increasingly antics replace the series’ well-observed tone. Before long, the crash seems inevitable. For this reviewer, it came the moment a man lost his hand in a retro-future toaster. It is so over the top, it seemed obvious a twist or con job was in the offing. There wasn’t. The show continues from there, but the balancing act is ruined. It’s become a cartoon that once seemed like a series with something to say.
The creators–Amit Bhalla and Lucas Jansen, previously of Bloodline—try to yank it all back with the season’s final line, “We were never that happy, were we?” The intent is clearly to end on a rebuff for American nostalgia, Billings’ entire worldview, and the relationship it refers to. By the time the audience hears it, though, the series has drifted too far afield to capture any sense of 1950s America via this alternate universe. Plus, we know next to nothing about the relationship in question. Finally, as for the worldview of a con artist salesman who insists he isn’t selling bad land but helping people find hope? Well, if you need the last line to know that’s false, I have this bridge I’d love to sell you.
Hello Tomorrow! is hosting sit-downs at AppleTV+ beginning on February 17.