Sad Jetsons: Depression, Buttonitis and Nostalgia in the World of Tomorrow
This is the 23rd in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The 23rd episode of “The Jetsons” originally aired on March 3, 1963 and was titled “Dude Planet.”
In the year 2063, the people in the Jetsons’ universe work just a few hours a day. When they’re hungry, they just push a button or two and out pops a fully-formed, nutritious meal. Trips to distant planets are commonplace for a middle class family of four. And humanoid robots see to their every earthly need.
But despite all this, the Jetsons are depressed.
Not all of the time, mind you. They have fun playing sports, watching TV, going out to eat, and enjoying a cigarette with their martinis. But no matter how good things may seem for the Jetson family, the show assures us that life in the future will still be a grind. The futuristic machine that magically makes breakfast will undoubtedly break. Your boss at the sprocket factory will still hound you for not working to his satisfaction. The rich and powerful will still use the legal system to their advantage.
What then is a 21st century human to do? How are we to cope with the overwhelming stresses of modern life in the future? We find that the answer for people like Jane Jetson is to retreat into a world of cultural nostalgia.
In the 23rd episode of “The Jetsons,” Jane isn’t feeling well. Life is a drag. Everything makes her irritable and her frustration with the repetition of life in the 21st century manifests itself in lashing out at the people she loves the most.
Jane goes to the doctor (at her husband’s insistence) and the doctor proceeds to run a bunch of tests. Jane tells the doctor about the stresses and general monotony of her life: “every day it’s the same thing, and every morning it’s the same thing,” she begins to explain in what sound like Nine Inch Nails lyrics. The doctor’s diagnosis is that she has buttonitis. “You need a rest,” the doctor tells Jane. “Get away from all those buttons.”
So Jane takes the doctor’s advice and decides to get away from it all. She visits a travel agency (remember those?) and books a trip to a dude ranch — a place where futuristic cityfolk can get away from the pressures of modern life and play cowboy.
It’s perhaps notable that Jane doesn’t visit a dude ranch on Earth. Instead, the travel agent tells her to visit the Beat Bar Ranch on the Beta III Dude Planet. “It’s like a page out of the old West,” the travel agent explains.
The fact that there’s apparently no suitable dude ranch on Earth could be a hint that Jetsonian technological development and rapid growth had long since swallowed any semblance of the rustic outdoors that Americans had known at midcentury. The postwar period of growth, with its insatiable thirst for suburban homes, new schools, bigger airports, and more highways was concerning conservationists of the early 1960s. Many believed that this growth meant that the days of outdoor recreation in America were numbered.
In 1962 (the year before this episode aired) a report was delivered to Congress and President Kennedy outlining the future of outdoor recreation in America. The report highlighted this postwar concern about how once-rural land was being allocated — with highways, schools and subdivisions on one side, and open spaces and unpolluted water on the other.
Decade by decade, the expanding population has achieved more leisure time, more money to spend, and better travel facilities; and it has sought more and better opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. But the public has also demanded more of other things. In the years following World War II, this process greatly accelerated as an eager Nation, released from wartime restrictions, needed millions of new acres for subdivisions, industrial sites, highways, schools, and airports. The resources for outdoor recreation — shoreline, green acres, open space, and unpolluted waters — diminished in the face of demands for more of everything else.
In the world of the Jetsons, outdoor recreation is relegated to distant planets. But at least this romanticized version of the “Old West” is still at your disposal.
The dude ranch is filled with people who we assume are in the same boat as Jane — mentally exhausted and feeling generally disconnected from any sense of personal fulfillment. Their quest to achieve happiness in the 21st century is thwarted by an evolving standard of comfort. Viewers of the show are warned that questions about the meaning of life and one’s self-worth hang over mid-21st century humanity just as they did in the 20th.
Jane heads to Beta Bar Ranch with her friend Helen but neither really seem to be enjoying themselves. It would seem that this escape into a world of nostalgia is no solution to their problems. They try their best to relax and take in the sights (like a cowboy doing his best to wrestle a robotic bull to the ground, and a robot cowboy emerging from a jukebox for a quick dance) but it’s no use. Jane simply misses her husband George too much. On top of that, she’s also jealous of the imaginary party he was throwing when they talked over the videophone.
Jane finds that reveling in nostalgia hasn’t helped her boredom with the tedium of life. Without saying as much, we assume that she resolves to simply put up with the more depressing aspects of life in the future. Happiness is at home, even when it’s not.
Today we often romanticize the past in similar ways as Jane. However, having a lot of money obviously helps one realize her dreams in playing Old West. Billionaire Bill Koch (the lesser known of the three brothers Koch) is currently building his own 50-building old west town on his 420 acre ranch in Colorado, complete with a 22,000 square foot mansion. The town will house Koch’s collection of Old West memorabilia, including a gun owned by Jesse James, Sitting Bull’s rifle, and a photograph of Billy the Kidd that he bought at auction for $2.3 million in 2011.
But 50 years hence it’s unlikely that any real-life Jane Jetsons will be able to get away from it all at Koch’s version of the Old West. Koch has said that he has no plans to make any of it open to the public.
This post originally appeared at Smithsonian.com.