Back to the future: Why The Jetsons is the most influential TV show of the 20th century

Matt Novak digs out decades-old predictions about the future, for his latest project he’s celebrating 50 years of futurist cartoon The Jetsons

Fifty years after they flew by car into the homes of millions, The Jetsons remain in the minds of a many a nostalgic flight back to Saturday mornings on the sofa. They were The Flintstones in space, grappling with the modern family, a dynamic that never gets old because, in their case, it was 2062. So we watched those original 24 episodes on repeat for decades.

To one man, however, The Jetsons were not just a childhood diversion, but one of the most important subjects in a field of history of which he is the founding student.

From his home in Los Angeles, and via his blog, Paleofuture, Matt Novak digs up the past to find predictions for the future, chipping away to reveal visions that reflect as much about our time, hopes and fears as the eternal search for a jetpack.

"It's easy for some people to dismiss The Jetsons as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that," he writes in the introduction to his ongoing series, 50 Years of The Jetsons. "But this little show has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future."

He goes on to call The Jetsons "one of most important pieces of futurism of the 20th century".

The animated sitcom, made by Hanna-Barbera, was one of the first ever colour TV series when it launched in September 1962. It introduced the titular family: George, whose job requires him to push a button for only a few hours a week; his gadget-loving wife, Jane, who stays at home to care for children, Judy and Elroy, their robot maid, Rosie, and Astro, a talking dog.

For Novak, who is too young at 29 to remember if he grew up watching repeats of the 1960s original, or the forgettable 1980s revival (or both), part of the show's appeal – and the broader appeal of his work – is assessing what predictions of a future world have and have not come to pass. We have flatscreen TVs, robot vacuum cleaners, video-conferencing, moving walkways and tanning beds. Flying cars and 10-hour working weeks? Not quite, but then we still have 50 years to achieve that utopia.

Predictions beyond technology in The Jetsons are less progressive. When George introduces Jane in the title sequence, it's while handing her dollar bills as she heads off shopping while he goes to work (she takes the whole wallet, incidentally). "There are no black people in The Jetsons," Novak adds. "It was a projection of the mid-20th century typical white family into the future. But it wasn't just The Jetsons – much of the futurism I look at never challenges social norms."

This is where The Jetsons' legacy reaches beyond the gadgets it imagines (all of which, incidentally, had been imagined elsewhere). Future-gazers, be they animators, novelists or doomsayers, are driven by fear as much as hope or intrigue about the time ahead. By the early Sixties, the rise and promise of post-war consumer culture had collided with Cold War anxiety. The result was the jetpack, the symbol of what Novak calls the golden age of futurism of the mid-20th century.

The makers of The Jetsons (who were, inevitably, middle-class and white) added comedy and parody to create the reassuring yet escapist vision of an "ideal" American family changed only by technology. As Novak says of their automated world, "the largest concern of the middle class was getting 'push-button finger'."

The blogger, who is now employed full-time by Smithsonian magazine, cites Danny Graydon, the British author of The Jetsons: The Official Cartoon Guide: "There was something very attractive about the nuclear family with good honest values thriving well into the future," he says. "I think that chimed with the zeitgeist of the American culture of the time."

Whether because of this, or the fact it looked nice and was funny, The Jetsons would be viewed by successive generations of cartoon watchers. They include the children of the past who run our present baby-boomer world and business leaders. What if, Novak asks, The Jetsons had "pumped into their brains" a different vision? "What if they had used mass transport, not a flying car? Would that impact public policy now?"

George Jetson as future 21st century policy-maker. Really?

"Well, I'm probably a fool to ask," Novak says, "but I do think that if we accept that children's programming has any effect at all, The Jetsons, I would argue, is the most influential of the 20th century."

The world's first paleofuturist?

Matt Novak's fascination with past depictions of the future started in 2007 as a project while he took a writing course at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. As it became an obsession, his Los Angeles apartment filled with postcards, cartoons, telegrams, films and newspaper clippings depicting holidays to the Moon he has amassed on eBay and on business trips during a previous life as an advertising executive.

"I'm a research nerd," he admits, "I've always enjoyed burying my head in books or microfiche."

Novak is as interested in the details of future predictions – the gadgets and journeys – as he is the social and political environments that gave rise to them. Paleofuturism, the discipline he coined (he is still, to his knowledge, its only expert) is, he says, "a great measure of our greatest hopes and our darkest fears".

In the course of his research, Novak came across "Yesterday's Tomorrows", a book he now calls the bible of retro-futurism. It accompanied a 1984 exhibition of the same name at the Smithsonian Museum, and featured, among other things, a 1937 Buck Rogers ray gun and, of course, a jetpack.

The discovery lead Novak to devote more time to his blog, which quickly became popular. Last year, The Smithsonian approached him and employed him, allowing him to quit his day job. "I could do this for the rest of my life," he says.

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