January 14, 2013
This is the 15th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The world of “The Jetsons” is fundamentally a conservative vision of the future. Whenever I mention this people tend to give me a strange look. But what I mean by “conservative” is not some political “red versus blue” or “Democrat versus Republican” idea, but rather conservative in the advocacy of the status quo — aside from technology, that is. The show projects into the future what was seen by some in 1963 as the ideal American family. They may have flying cars and vacations to the moon, but the family still consists of a husband, wife, two kids and a dog. Mom is a homemaker, Dad has a (relatively) steady job. Daughter is boy-crazy, Son is rambunctious and inquisitive but not a troublemaker. And the dog is… well, it turns out the dog is a millionaire. At least in the 15th episode he is.
The 15th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on January 6, 1963 and was titled “Millionaire Astro.” The conservative element in this episode has to do with an issue that made plenty of headlines in 2012 — income inequality. Over the years, more daring forms of American futurism — everything from Edward Bellamy’s 1887 socialist utopian novel Looking Backward to the 1987-94 TV show “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — have envisioned eras with vastly different economic structures (including the obsolescence of money). But within the Jetsons world, billionaires still exist. The billionaire in question here may be quite unlovable, but there’s a familiarity viewers have with the gag — rich people still exist in the future and your attempts to win in a court of law against them are essentially worthless.
George teeters on the edge of middle class and working class (what many Americans often call “lower-middle class”) while the techno-utopian future hasn’t produced tangible quality of life improvements wherein everybody feels like they’re living in the lap of luxury. George works just a few hours each day, but his standard of living is far below others like the local billionaire, J. P. Gottrockets. This episode is Astro’s origin story. We learn that Astro’s original owner was Gottrockets. Astro’s given name was Tralfaz, but after running away Elroy picks him up and we learn that he loves life with the Jetsons much more than his old life with Gottrockets. After a court battle over custody of Astro, Gottrockets has Astro return to his estate. But Astro is bored with his original owner’s wealth. All the steaks he can eat, all the bones he can gnaw on, all the fire hydrants he can… sniff. The narrator explains that Astro was “Doomed to a life of dull, depressing wealth and luxury.” Thus, it’s the age-old lesson that money can’t buy happiness (although those with lots of money seem to be doing just fine).
Technologically, things have advanced. But socially, economically and culturally “The Jetsons” represents a future that is not unlike the world of 1963. They are stuck in time. This of course has a very practical reason: the people of 1962-63 when the first (and only original) season aired needed to watch something with which they could relate. But as the most important piece of futurism of the 20th century, it’s interesting to note that it represents an idealized society that is increasingly anachronistic with each passing year.
January 2, 2013
This is the 14th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 14th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired in the U.S. on December 30, 1962, and was titled “Test Pilot.” This episode (like so many others) centers around the competition between Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs. Both companies have developed an invincibility suit which can supposedly withstand anything from gigantic sawblades to missiles being fired directly at it. The only trouble is that neither Mr. Spacely nor Mr. Cogswell can find any person brave enough (or dumb enough) to act as a human guinea pig and test the suit’s ability to keep its wearer safe.
George goes to the doctor for an insurance physical and gets some bad news. George swallows a Peek-A-Boo Prober Capsule which travels around the inside of his body showing the doctor (in a rather humorous way, of course) how George’s various organs are holding up. “You just swallow it and it transmits pictures to a TV screen,” the doctor explains. Through a series of mix-ups the doctor diagnoses George as having very little time to live. George then takes “live each day as if it were your last” quite literally and begins making hasty decisions — giving his family money to spend frivolously and telling off his boss, Mr. Spacely.
Mr. Spacely realizes that George’s newfound bravery may be just what he needs to test out the invincibility suit. Mr. Cogswell tries to poach the newly heroic Jetson for his company since he’s had no more luck than Mr. Spacely in finding a test pilot. Mr. Spacely wins out and George goes on testing the suit without a care in the world, acting rather calm for a man who believes that he’ll soon be six feet under. (Or six feet over? I don’t think “The Jetsons” ever addresses if people of the 21st century are buried or cremated or shot into space or something.)
After many death-defying tests, George discovers that the diagnosis was wrong and that he’s not going to die. George then reverts back to the lovable coward he always was and does his best to get out of the last test which just so happens to involve two missiles being shot at him. In the end, it wasn’t the missiles or the sawblades that destroyed the suit, but the washing machine — and George remarks that they should have included a “dry-clean only” tag.
The 1950s was an exciting decade for medicine with many important innovations — from Salk’s polio vaccine to the first organ transplant. These incredible advancements led many to believe that such marvelous medical discoveries would continue at an even more accelerated rate into the 21st century, including in how to diagnosis different diseases.
As Dr. Kunio Doi explains in his 2006 paper “Diagnostic Imaging Over the Last 50 Years” the science of seeing inside the human body has developed tremendously since the 1950s. The biggest hurdle in diagnostic imaging at mid-century was the manual processing of film which could be time consuming:
[In the 1950s] most diagnostic images were obtained by use of screen-film systems and a high-voltage x-ray generator for conventional projection x-ray imaging [...]. Most radiographs were obtained by manual processing of films in darkrooms[...], but some of the major hospitals began to use automated film processors. The first automated film processor [...] was a large mechanical system with film hangers, which was designed to replace the manual operation of film development; it was very bulky, requiring a large space, and took about 40 min to process a film.
The January 17, 1960 edition of the Sunday comic strip Our New Age by Athelstan Spilhaus offered an optimistic look at the medical diagnostic instruments of the future:
The strip explains that one day patients might step into an “examination booth” while outfitted with a suit that measures all kinds of things at once — your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and so on. This suit will, of course, be connected to a computer which will spit out data to be analyzed by a doctor. The prescription will then be “automatically” printed out for the patient.
Just as we see with George Jetson, “automatic” diagnosis in this comic strip from 1960 doesn’t mean that humans will be taken completely out of the picture. Doctors of the future, we were told, will still play a vital role in analyzing information and double-checking the computer’s diagnosis. As Dr. Doi notes in his paper, we’ve made tremendous strides in the last 50 years of diagnosis. But I suppose we’re still waiting on that invincibility suit.
December 18, 2012
This is the thirteenth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 13th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on December 16, 1962, and was titled “Elroy’s Pal.” The episode looks at Elroy’s obsession with the fictional TV show “Nimbus the Greatest,” about a heroic fighter of space pirates. The show is sponsored by Moonies breakfast cereal and Elroy enters a contest for the chance to meet Nimbus in person. As it turns out, Elroy wins the contest but the actor who plays Nimbus is ill and can’t visit Elroy at home. When George finds out that Nimbus won’t be coming he devises a plan to dress as Nimbus himself but the original Nimbus comes anyway and Elroy learns that even though he can be strict, his father loves him.
The 1950s was a time of rapid growth for the medium of television. American households with TVs went from just 9 percent in 1950 to about 87 percent by the end of the decade. Unlike the largely ad-agnostic programming that the networks produce today, many TV shows of the 1950s had a single sponsor. As production costs rose this single sponsor model became unsustainable and multiple sponsors in the form of 30- and 60-second commercials became the norm by the mid-1960s. As the Journal of Advertising noted in their Fall 1998 issue, “During the 1950s most children’s programs, and many adult shows, were controlled by the sponsor and its advertising agency, which often packaged the program, commercials and all.” This integration meant that you saw breakfast cereals that could sponsor contests fully integrated with the show. Cereal made up as much as 23 percent of ads on children’s TV in the 1950s and the emergence of the Space Age in the late 1950s meant that this was a perfect combination for “The Jetsons” to depict.
Lawrence R. Samuel notes in his essay ”The Sky Is The Limit: Advertising and Consumer Culture in Rocketman Television Series of the 1950s” that the lines between entertainment and advertising were often blurred in those days, leaving kids to digest the sales pitch as simply an integral part of the show. “Show-related merchandise was an essential element of sponsorships,” he writes, “used to raise brand awareness and, more importantly, as a sales incentive. A package box top or wrapper plus ten or twenty-five cents could reap any number of space-themed premiums, an almost sure way to keep young viewers tuned in and to make sure mom bought the right product at the grocery store.”
Elroy’s Nimbus costume and action figure show that he’s committed to the show, just as kids of the 1950s were buying all kinds of products to show their commitment to Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Midnight, Space Patrol and Commando Cody. But the tail end of the Space Age would find spacemen less popular on American television, as Boomers grew up and kids like Elroy became less enamored with astronauts and the ray gun culture of their youth.
December 11, 2012
This is the twelfth in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 12th episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired in the U.S. on December 9, 1962 and was titled “Astro’s Top Secret.” Personally, this is my least favorite episode in the entire series. It has odd pacing, is visually uninteresting, and the animation seems abnormally sloppy.
The episode opens with a voiceover introducing us to George and Astro as having a relationship that’s a bit strained at the moment. We’re then shown Mr. Spacely and Mr. Cogswell — two business rivals playing a game of golf together — as Spacely insists that he’s going to put Cogswell out of business. Later, Cogswell sends one of his employees to spy on George who Cogswell believes must be working on the project that will help Spacely Sprockets put Cogswell Cogs out of business. Through a series of misunderstandings, the corporate espionage leads Cogswell to believe that George has developed an anti-gravitational device that allows George’s dog Astro to fly. Cogswell interrogates Astro but can’t seem to figure out what makes the soaring pooch fly. In the end, it’s revealed to both Cogswell and Spacely that Elroy’s flying car toy was the source of Astro’s anti-gravitational feats, and through even more misunderstandings the status quo is simply restored by conclusion of the episode.
As I mentioned, this is one of my least favorite episodes but I think there’s a lot of interesting technology going on with the golf game between Cogswell and Spacely. Their futuristic golf game game features flying golf carts, expandable club heads, hovering greens and robotic tees.
As is often the case with “The Jetsons” the forward-thinking technology has roots in the futurism of the day. In the case of Mr. Spacely’s hovering golf cart, we find similar technology in the newspapers of the early 1960s. The March 5, 1961 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic strip “Closer Than We Think” looked at the future of golf, augmented by push-button technology:
To save steps for the par-shooter of the future, a Tokyo firm has designed a remote-control golf cart, based on the same principles that permit a television viewer to change channels without leaving his chair. Once our golfer arrived at the edge of a green or bad rough, he would walk to the ball, take his shot, and then summon his cart by voice or button as he moved along toward the nineteenth hole.
Still another advance, lacking in the Japanese concept, lies ahead. It’s the “ground effect machine” principle, through which the cart could float on a cushion of air instead of riding on the turf. No more fairway flattening in the future!
Golf in the U.S. is often associated with prosperity and the kind of leisure activity that stodgy old men love. So it’s fitting that two titans of business would be playing it well into the 21st century. Later in the 1960s golf would be used in promotional films to demonstrate that in the future even the common man would be able to zip off to distant resorts and play golf whenever he pleased. Unfortunately for George, only his boss Mr. Spacely would enjoy “a good walk spoiled” whenever he pleased.
December 4, 2012
This is the eleventh in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 11th episode of The Jetsons opens with a police officer pulling over Montague Jetson — George’s grandfather and a man whose abundant energy and enthusiasm for life dominate the episode. The cop observes that Grandpa Jetson is, “110… and still acting like a man of 75.” With that, we learn that the promises of the 20th century were true: not only will people of the future live longer, they’ll be much happier and healthier. Titled, “A Visit From Grandpa,” the episode first aired on December 2, 1962 and looked at everything from future fashions (when Judy and Jane come home with an assortment of new hats) to sports of the future (when Grandpa Jetson plays with and bests every member of the Jetson family at their favorite sport).
In “The Jetsons” everything naturally has a Space Age twist — even the fashion. When Judy and Jane come home from shopping they model their new hats for George which include names like “Moonscape,” the “Cosmonautris” and the “Nuclear Look.” All of these looks appeal to the googie-tastic flare that we’ve come to associate with mid-century futurism and more often than not, what people of the 21st century call the “Jetsons look.” But these far out styles have roots that extend beyond the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The dress at right was featured in the February 1, 1939 issue of Vogue magazine and was designed by Henry Dreyfuss for the woman of the year 2000.
Retailers of the 1930s would sometimes put on futuristic fashion shows but the trend really took off in the 1950s and 1960s, with designers who were inspired by the techno-utopian ideas of the era. In 1957, Marshall Field’s in Chicago had a two week exposition of American living in the year 2000. The store showcased the futuristic works of 17 apparel and accessory designers, giving customers a peek at the supposed futuristic fashions to come. From the May 15, 1957, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune:
Most of the designers represented agreed that the fashionable woman of the future will be wired for sound, with sending and receiving equipment built into their costume. Fabrics will be treated to be warm in winter and cool in summer. Some will screen the sun to allow tanning without burning while others, used in bathing suits, will make them unsinkable.
The article went on to explain that fashion of the future would require plenty of pockets for all the high-tech gadgets and meal pills we’d all be using.
A futuristic lounging robe by Dorian, for example is equipped with 40 pockets containing food pills, electrical outlets for instant permanents, and communications systems with robot controls to keep the housewife in touch with the laundry, the nursery, and the kitchen.
And what about the Space Age wedding? We’ve looked at late-1950s predictions for honeymoons on the moon. According to fashion designer Zagri, the wedding itself will take place on Venus:
The chic place for weddings of the future will be the planet Venus, according to Chicago designer Zagri. Her design for a bridal costume is a convertible two-piece ensemble of luxurious gold lame. The voluminous skirt and train comes off to reveal a coverall suitable for a space ship honeymoon. A huge plastic bubble equipped with radar is the bride’s headdress.
The rocking chair is a symbol of a slower life — the natural desire to take it easy as one becomes older and less agile. Grandpa’s futuristic rocking chair (or at least the one that George and Elroy are working on for him) is another example of Jetsons technology that doesn’t operate quite as it was intended. Silly jokes like George wobbling around on an out-of-control rocking chair are certainly par for the course during any cartoon, but in the Jetson household they also speak to a kind of conservatism that runs throughout the series. Using sight gags, the show will often argue that messing with symbols of tradition (like the rocking chair) will have unpleasant consequences. And tradition aside, there’s no way Grandpa Jetson needs a rocking chair, since in the future even a man of 110 years old will be as happy and healthy as a person half his age.
Predictions of increased longevity became extremely popular mid-century, but they date back much further. The January 2, 1926 Charleston Gazette included a short article about predictions for a future when humans might live to see 200 years old:
A serious scientist has glad news for all those that want to stick to this world, in spite of its troubles and worries. In the year 2000, says he, the average life will be 100 years, and many will live to be 200 years old.
That will interest birth control advocates, for something in the way of birth control would seem to be necessary in 2000 A.D.
A man and woman 200 years old might easily have thousands of descendants. Providence, however, doesn’t let the trees grow into the heavens.
A quarter of a century later the Associated Press would look at life expectancy and health into the year 2000, with a short piece by the AP’s medical editor in 1950:
Medicine by the year 2000 will have advanced the length of life of women to an expectation of nearly 80 and of men to over 75.
The record will be better if the cause and cure of cancer is discovered. Cancer is a form of growth. It is part of metabolism. Concerning growth, nothing is now known. Metabolism is not such a complete mystery, but is complex. Most of the chronic diseases, except infections caused by germs and viruses, are based on metabolism gone wrong.
Growth, metabolism and cancer studies will make the first break into clearing another mystery, the causes of aging. After that is known it will be possible to control aging so that elderly persons will be healthy to nearly the end of their lives.
Hope is very good for restricting cancer’s attack before 50 more years, but not for eradicating it. For it now appears that cancer is not a single disease, but takes many forms.
The prevention of baldness depends on studies of growth, aging and death more than on any other now known factor.
Public health will improve, especially the knowledge of how air carries infections, like the common cold, from person to person. Before 2000, the air probably will be made as safe from disease-spreading as water and food were during the first half of this century.
Surgery, which has been the fastest-moving side of medical science, will by 2000, be able to repair bodies damaged by disease, by accidents or by heredity so that the “lame and the halt” will nearly disappear. Polio probably will be stopped well before 2000.
Since the episode revolves around the fact that the elderly will be able to stay active well into old age, we see Grandpa Jetson participate in physical activity with every member of the family. Grandpa shows that he can keep up with Judy’s dance moves, he can both pitch and catch against Elroy in spaceball (which bares a striking resemblance to baseball), he can best George in bowling, he can sky-ski with Jane, and he can play catch with Astro.
The Jetsons, as we’ve seen, most often want to present viewers with something relatable to a mid-century audience. With this in mind we understand why our family of the year 2062 all participate in sports that are familiar to the people of 1962 rather than completely fabricating a new sport. Just add “space” “sky” or “nuclear” to anything and voila: it’s been futured. Or more appropriately from the vantage point of the 21st century: it’s been Jetsoned.