Tuesday, April 11, 2023

On the American nightmare of 'Hello Tomorrow!'

See the 1950s not as they happened, but as they wish they had

Welcome to postwar America, a land of ambition, opportunity, and pie-in-the-sky dreams. Everything is possible if you can affo— erm, imagine it. Why put off until later what you can purchase today? Fortune favors the brave, and today's name for fortune is the free market. At the push of a button, happiness can be yours in affordable installments; all you need to do is believe hard enough. So, what more could you desire in this cornucopia of pastel and chrome? Sign on the dotted line, and you can boast your very own piece of the Moon.

The new Apple TV+ series Hello Tomorrow! is a funhouse mirror version of the mid-century prosperity boom that cemented American world dominance. All the miracles that technology was supposed to bring to our daily lives are made real here: robot waiters, self-heating popcorn, personal jetpacks, smell-o-vision, hovercars, self-adjusting neckties, lunar telephones. The lifestyle of domestic leisure that the Space Age failed to deliver is presented in full, oversaturated color, with a populuxe glee that would make George Jetson nod with pride.

Although daily life in this world is as bright and comfortable as the real 1950s merely hoped to be, it's built on the same soul-crushing cutthroat grind, and the character types created for this story are fascinating examples of the coping strategies required to survive in consumerist utopia. If the production design of Hello Tomorrow! is award-worthy, the casting is pitch-perfect. The roles played by Haneefah Wood and Alison Pill carry the weight of being the only sensible women in a world of excitable manchildren, whereas Susan Heyward and Dagmara DomiƄczyk play more cynical characters who have learned to game the system in their favor. Hank Azaria as a compulsive gambler with odd Freudian superstitions represents the weary worker who does the exact minimum required by his job while despising every day of it, while Dewshane Williams as a compulsive people-pleaser with a creepy practiced smile represents the fully absorbed worker who has sincerely bought into the myth of self-made success via hard effort. Matthew Maher as a compulsive rule-enforcer who implausibly speaks in misspellings represents the lawful acquiescence that keeps the dehumanizing machinery running, and Billy Crudup as a compulsive fraudster who can't refrain from phrasing everything in ad copy represents, paradoxically, the most honest portrait of how business is actually done.

If marketing, as I've said before, is the Dark Side of rhetoric, Crudup's character has the vilest, most despicable job in the galaxy: he's a salesman. A very skilled one. Even if he weren't a silver-tongued smoke peddler, even if his polished spiel about offworld luxury property were true, his strategy of tugging on people's deepest aspirations to get them to part with their money would suffice to instantly detest his manipulative personality. Crudup does a fantastic job of expressing the layers of pretense that envelop this conniving trickster who always needs to keep in mind which version of the lie he's telling to whom. In the real world, selling real estate on the Moon has no legal basis, but that hasn't stopped many a self-proclaimed entrepreneur from trying, nor will this be the last time shameless speculators point to the Moon to make their case. What this salesman has figured out is that lunar property is the kitschiest form of conspicuous consumption, a mark of distinction for the whole planet to watch with open envy. Something to literally look up to.

It is precisely the concept of "looking up to" that drives the best character dynamic in the show: that between the con man played by Crudup and his son, played by Nicholas Podany, a spectacularly cast role that explores with passionate earnestness the whole range that goes from American optimism to American heartbreak. If every story about the future is actually saying something about the present, every alternate history is actually telling something about reality. The shiny future didn't fail to come because we didn't invent personal jetpacks. The world of Hello Tomorrow! has all the technological delights that industrialized capitalism promised American workers, those same workers who grew up traumatized by the Great Depression and apparently swore to never look poor again. Our fraudster protagonist doesn't want to be an honorable father; he wants to seem one. He doesn't want to do honest business; he wants to be seen performing it.

American mid-century prosperity was real, but it was supported by a gigantic effort in aesthetics. We're currently plagued by nostalgia for the 80s, which in turn dealt with nostalgia for the 50s. But what is remembered about the 50s is what got photographed, filmed, advertised, not the actual experiences of the people on whose backs that prosperity rested.

Carl Sagan is often misquoted as having said, "that which can be destroyed by the truth deserves to be." It's fittingly ironic that the popular attribution of the phrase is likely mistaken. In Hello Tomorrow!, that which can be destroyed by the truth is too shiny and pretty to let go. Success, prestige, glamour is what America promises, what the protagonist of this series trades in. He's not selling plots of land; he's selling a vision of self-realization that consists in vacuum-sealing oneself from the undeserving rabble. Just like he's become isolated from everything that was genuine in his life, he's inviting others to buy the same isolation. His inability to open up to his son is a microcosm of the anxiety that underlied 1950s America, a place where your honesty limits your achievements, where you may have no more than the shirt on your back, but as long as it's sufficiently starched, you can dream of the stars.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.