April 16, 2024

Hello Tomorrow! Makes Optimism Look Oppressive

A few months ago, I nearly ran over one of Uber Eats’s delivery robots with my car. The little guy was trundling along a crosswalk when I made a left turn. As if startled by my presence, it stopped abruptly in the middle of the street, and its β€œeyes,” two rings of lights, blinked. Even though its position now meant that I couldn’t complete my turn and was stuck blocking oncoming traffic, I instinctively apologized. How could I not? It had a name emblazoned on its side: Harold, if I remember correctly. Sorry, Harry.

Robot technology seems just as sentient in Hello Tomorrow!, AppleTV+’s new dramedy set in a retro-futuristic society. In the first episode, a chipper delivery van greets passersby via a screen showing an animated stork. The cartoon bird recites cutesy messages: β€œMorning, friend!” β€œHello, neighbor!” β€œHave a bright, smiling day!” But of course, there’s nothing self-aware about the van: By the end of the scene, it has accidentally backed into a woman, crushing her against her garage door. And no, it doesn’t apologize.

Hello Tomorrow! follows Jack Billings (played by Billy Crudup), a traveling salesman hawking time-shares on the moon, who wows new clients with grandiose visions of a better life off Earth. As an allegory for the illusory promise of the American dream, the show is rather inelegant. The characters are thin, the dialogue is painfully on the nose, and the plotβ€”largely about whether there’s really anything on the moon, and whether Jack can keep his customers’ interestβ€”goes in a predictably dark direction for everybody involved.

And yet, I was taken by the show’s mid-century, Epcot-ian aesthetics. Nearly every scene bursts with beep-booping gadgets and Jetsons-y machinery: People commute using jet packs, get served drinks by sassy robot bartenders, and so on. These gizmos look cool, but they do little to actually improve people’s experiences. Instead, they highlight the limits of technological advances: Innovation, the show suggests, can manifest as mere style over substance, marketing rather than mattering. The series’s own stylishness, however, turns out to be its greatest strength.

Consider how almost everything in Hello Tomorrow! levitates. There are levitating cars, levitating briefcases, levitating dog walkersβ€”all of which add little utility. The cars can’t really fly; they just hover at the same height they would if they had wheels. The briefcases still have handles; they might as well be carried. As for the dog-walking, well, having a robot walk a dog frees up pet owners’ schedules, but the show also includes a shot of a family trying to train a robot dog. What’s the point of making both mechanical dogs and dog-walkers available? What are such advanced products for, aside from making a society seem advanced?

Subtly (and perhaps inadvertently), the show’s elaborate production design illustrates the attractiveness of new models, no matter their futility. A machine stocking shelves at a grocery store still requires a human to monitor its work; otherwise, it might overstock, causing goods to come crashing down. A bureaucrat keeps his files impeccably organized with his floating briefcase, but he must shred them by hand once he’s finished with an assignment in order to ensure privacy. Sometimes, what’s state of the art is just a repackaged and renamed version of an existing item. In the fourth episode, Jack marvels at a microwavelike contraption that incorporates β€œaroma technology,” as if food had never emanated smells. This infatuation with the latest inventions permeates everyone’s thinking on Hello Tomorrow!, so much so that they don’t notice they’re chasing after a gussied-up variant of what they already have. The people enamored with Jack’s pitch are on the extreme end of this obsession: Everything they have is so familiar that they need to leave the planet.

Unlike with other recent sci-fi series that take a more cautionary view of the future, the show’s whimsical aesthetics match its characters’ sunny optimism, making Hello Tomorrow! even more unsettling to watch. They’ve come to see anything new and (allegedly) improved as confirmation that the world they live in is getting better.

Eventually, the look of Hello Tomorrow! starts to come off as oppressive. Jack’s quest gets trickier, characters’ lives get complicated by melodramatic twists, but the series’s bright aesthetics never dim. The supposedly innovative objects surrounding the ensemble do nothing to alleviate their problems. A self-tying tie cannot repair Jack’s relationship with his son. A perfectly seared steak from a top-of-the-line, aroma-technology-assisted machine cannot patch up a marriage. Instead, most of the futuristic items on the show are ornamental at bestβ€”much like many updates in our own world. Hello Tomorrow! frustrates with its weak narrative, but the show does, in its visuals, hit on a bleak truth: We’re often doing nothing more than reinventing the wheelβ€”and then calling that a breakthrough.

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