There’s a terrific article that ran earlier this year on the “enshittification” of TikTok specifically, and of the Internet writ large. It would be hard to summarize succinctly here, but the gist is that sites like TikTok or Facebook start by being good to their users, then screwing them to benefit business customers, then screwing business customers to benefit themselves, and then dying. If you accept that as true—and it’s hard to argue against the evidence—Apple TV+ is very much in the “being good to its users” phase of things, while streaming services like Netflix have moved on to the next stage of evolution. From Slow Horses to Severance to Physical to Black Bird, they’ve proved that they put quality at the top of the priority list, they aren’t afraid to take stylistic risks, and more than occasionally, those risks are paying off. How long it lasts is anybody’s guess—enshittification seems to come for them all—but there’s no denying that we’re living in the Apple TV+ golden age.
Into that framework steps Hello Tomorrow!, the new drama set in a time and place that is accurately described in its own literature as “retro-future.” In practice, that means the most idealized, catalogue-perfect version of the ‘50s, plus robots and other gadgets that are technologically advanced, but only as imagined by someone living in that age (picture The Jetsons, but on Earth and not animated). The dresses and the cars are vintage, but the ennui and desperation of the people is modern. The man to cure that dread, we learn in the first episode, is Jack Billings, a salesman (played by Billy Crudup) who is hawking literal condos on the moon.
The myth of escape is the prevailing impulse of the suckers in this show, and though Jack can be heard to admit in a candid moment that our problems will be waiting for us on the lunar surface, for the most part he’s a smiling paragon of the fervent hope that maybe, just maybe, they won’t be. Crudup is spectacular in the role, and while there are surface similarities to the executive Cory Ellison he plays in The Morning Show, what’s hiding behind Ellison is a menacing readiness to kill, while here, what lies beneath the facade of Billings is something sadder, and more hopeless. Nevertheless, we only see the barest glimpses of that, and where Crudup really shines in his thorough embodiment of a man who truly, truly sells the dream. Even though we the viewers understand that he’s full of shit, his performance is so unflinching we want to believe him—we want to believe that the world of promise he prophesies actually exists, and we want to believe that we can seize it and possess some of his unshakeable optimism. We want our place on the moon, yes, but we also want to be him.
(It’s fascinating to compare the Crudup of this show, and The Morning Show, with the floundering “Fuckhead” of Jesus’ Son, and to see how his most visible roles today tap into the smug-but-likable-but-powerful persona he cultivated here. He executes it phenomenally, but you also hope he gets to do something different soon.)
As you might guess, Billings’ offer of lunar escape is not what it seems, and things get complicated when his mother, ensconced in a nursing home, urges him to touch base with the son he ran out on decades earlier. He does touch base with that son, Joey (Nicholas Podany), but in typical fashion, he doesn’t tell him he’s his father, and pulls him into the world of sales as though his son is just one more customer. And yet, it doesn’t feel cynical; it feels like Billings is yearning for some connection, and this is the only way he knows how to get it. He’s stuck in his own patterns, unable to resist the thing he’s good at, and always ready with a rationalization when somebody calls him out. The problem with Billings is that he’s so adept at reading his fellow man that nobody can stay ahead of him long enough to wring out anything too true.
“How do you know people so good?” Joey asks him.
“Knocking on their doors,” he says. “It’s a hell of a classroom.”
But the lesson he’s taken from it is how to manipulate. The people in his charge are flawed in some way—Hank Azaria is phenomenal as Eddie, equal parts slippery and sincere, and hampered by a gambling problem, and Haneefah Wood is almost as good as Shirley, Billings’ top lieutenant and the one closest to cracking what lies at the man’s center. (Less effective is the stilted character of Herb Porter, played by Dewshane Williams, whose specific quirks don’t really make sense or capture the attention.)
By the end of the third episode, the studied slow pace of the narrative begins to grate a little, and you suspect the show may be offering more in performance and slick direction (the ‘50s tableaus are seriously impressive) than it is in story. Nevertheless, even as the plot decelerates and you start to wonder where the payoff might be, and if it might come too late, the uniqueness of Hello Tomorrow! is its own reward. We seem to be living in a time when the hope for escape feels bygone and even quaint, and when the weight of the future has erased the fantasy of freedom for all but a few billionaires building rockets and buying land in New Zealand. But by setting this theater of desire in a time when the cult of the individual was just beginning to spring to life in America, the creators have successfully crafted a space where we can slip in, gaze in wonder, and believe in the unfailing smile of a man like Jack Billings.
Hello Tomorrow! premieres Friday, February 17th on Apple TV+.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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