In “Mad Men,” Don Draper was in the business of selling dreams. With his mesmerizing voice, he could transform a simple product into a gateway to a better life — lipstick, for example, as the key to marital harmony.
The unique, retro-futurist series “Hello Tomorrow!” is all about the selling of dreams, too, as it gives us a group of 1950s-styled salesmen promising people the moon — literally. Led by Billy Crudup’s master of the art, a smooth guy named Jack Billings who can turn a pitch into a sip of sunshine, the men hawk time-shares on the big white orb as if they’re the answer to all our earthly woes. A veteran in the business, a whiskey-on-the-rocks kind of guy, Jack is another in a long line of hard sellers — like the men in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Boiler Room” — who could be saviors as much as they could be con men.
The Apple TV+ sci-fi series, which premieres Friday, is all about these extroverted creatures and the needy folks who too eagerly buy their visions of happiness. Created by Amit Bhalia and Lucas Jansen, it’s a strange concoction, one that resists easy description as it yokes together elements of the past and the future in ways that are by turns funny and resonant. Visually, “Hello Tomorrow!” gives us women in cinched waistlines and little hats and tract houses with old black-and-white tube TVs. And the characters have the more innocent, stiffer, and less self-aware manner we see in 1950s movies. But then the series is set in a future when humans are living on the moon. These people drive boxy 1950s cars, but those cars are wheelless, suspended above the roads by some kind of high-tech engineering. It’s the same old hunger for the American Dream, whether it’s the dawn of the modern era or some kind of cosmic future.
Crudup is excellent, making Jack into someone you want to believe in, even while you may have gnawing doubts about him. As the head of a Brightside Lunar Residences sales office, he is so committed to drawing in his customers — some of them looking for financial opportunity on the moon, others hoping to escape troubles — that you can almost miss the menace in his eyes. Jack’s team includes Hank Azaria’s Eddie, an old-school gambling and alcohol addict, and Haneefah Wood’s Shirley, who handles the office’s paperwork and the workplace morale. Wood is a great presence, as is Jacki Weaver as Jack’s mother, warming up a show that might otherwise be too coolly existential.
There’s a new guy in the office, too, the innocent and enthusiastic Joey (Nicholas Podany), and much of the plot in the 10 half-hour episodes is triggered by his arrival. He quickly becomes Jack’s favorite, for reasons that quickly become clear and that stir some unconscious envy in Herb (Dewshane Williams), a sweet dope who has been loyal to Jack for a long time. Jack’s relationship with Joey is the master’s first step in an effort to find redemption, to use his professional optimism in service of something genuine. He is inspired by the kid’s positivity and sincerity, and he may be able to dodge late-career “Death of a Salesman”-esque despair.
In a more farcical and less successful story line, an over-the-top Alison Pill shows up as a threat to Brightside. She’s Myrtle, a woman who leaves her husband and burns down her house before setting off for her lunar timeshare. But her rocket flight is postponed, like so many Brightside flights, and in her hysterical rage she gets the law involved. Plotwise, Myrtle is an integral part of “Hello Tomorrow!” but tonally, she’s too aggressive as comic relief. Eddie’s story, too, seems cartoonish and pointless.
“Hello Tomorrow!” is impressive overall, not least of all thanks to some extraordinary production design. The robots are both humorous and beautiful in their mid-century manner. But at points midway through the season, the show can be redundant, giving us big reveals of things we already knew. And some of the characters can seem not intentionally shallow, but hollow and underdeveloped. Still, it’s another example of Apple TV+’s effort to deliver highly original series, from “Severance” to “For All Mankind” and “Dickinson.” It’s an ambitious take on the rigors of deception, as well as on the willingness to be deceived.
Starring: Billy Crudup, Haneefah Wood, Alison Pill, Matthew Maher, Nicholas Podany, Dewshane Williams, Susan Heyward, Hank Azaria, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, Dagmara Dominczyk
On: Apple TV+. Premieres Friday.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.