Nothing sets up a big flashy dystopian launch show from a new streaming service like a series of pandemic-era protests during the worst presidential administration of American history. But showrunner David Wiener (Homecoming) has the misfortunate to see his Aldous Huxley adaptation debut during a time when the very real and dangerous concerns of a global populace couldn’t be further from the tenets listed during the show’s opening moments: “No privacy. No family. No monogamy.” Orgies all the time, sci-fi healthcare, and guaranteed employment? Brave New World’s bad timing is the least of its flaws, as the AAA series from Peacock is a foolish, dull, and cowardly take on a literary classic.
I watched the full nine-episode first season, which finds New London’s stratified perfection fall into chaos. Huxley’s utopia worshipped Ford and Freud: assembly-line industrialism and psychological conditioning. Peacock’s bows at the altar of soma (the ever-present feel-good pill being popped by New London’s residents) and Indra, a society-permeating digital network that has the same etymological root in Hindu mythology as soma. The boogymen of the book have been updated to self-medication and biocybernetics.
The latter is perhaps the most important undermining of Huxley’s Brave New World. The novel provides an effective satirical utopia because it is, top to bottom, filled with people happy with their lot—as fucked up as that may be. The series provides a world where people’s constant disillusion is kept in line by sex, drugs, and an all-seeing program. Those looking for an excuse for humanity’s bad tendencies get a technological scapegoat and a critique blandly becomes a cowardly conspiracy. Did this dystopia need another villain beyond its own pleasure-seeking populace?
Our representatives are Alpha Plus Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), introduced as a bit of an unhappiness detective investigating incidents of nonconformity, and Beta Plus Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), a scientist tasked with assigning those Greek class rankings. They’re both a bit off, Bernard because his gangling frame (accentuated by his loose clothes) mirrors how insufficient he is as an upper-cruster and Lenina because she’s been sleeping with the same guy for a few months—a big no-no.
Both are well-acted. Lloyd sells a Michael Fassbender-like serpentine charm with a crooked grin and pathetic desperation by primping his hair, while Findlay’s wounded stares and uncomfortable shrugs (she puts as much apathetic affect in her gestures as her line deliveries) reveal cracks beneath an unblemished surface.
Through some silly plot contrivances—no sillier than what’s to come—including an entirely uninteresting suicide investigation subplot, Lenina and Bernard galavant off to the Savage Lands outside the utopia, where humanity as it once was is preserved … kind of. It’s a place where the universe’s confused cultural decay and odd timeline are most apparent. Here is a world where people don’t know what deer were, but where Luther Vandross’ “Here And Now” is still played at (faux) weddings. Weddings in the Savage Lands are an amusing farce (unlike so much of the straightened-out series’ dystopia) meant to highlight the dangerous, backwards, and unhappy ways of those outside of perfect New London.
Discarding its tasteless indigenous content without losing the name—the “Savage” reservation in New Mexico has been changed to a more satirical theme park—the Savage Lands looks like an amalgamation of dusty rural stereotypes with a Mad Max facelift. Scraggly facial hair, southern accents, bad tattoos, sunburned wrinkles, and hardscrabble earners: it’s a regular Hillbilly Elegy out there, and just as oversimplified, dull, and problematic.
John (Alden Ehrenreich) lives here alongside his immodest and ultimately unimportant mother Linda (Demi Moore). Those that had an English class in high school might not recognize them from the book, though. John doesn’t cling to Shakespeare as his one source of contraband human culture; he cleans a car to Car Seat Headrest, playing from what looks like an old iPod duct-taped to a promotional flash drive, and acts like any Joe Blow. Shakespearean morality has been replaced by modern musical hipness. It’s as bad as Ehrenreich’s all-over-the-place performance.
Linda’s embarrassing (to John) immodesty is contained to drunkenly tooling around the house in a nightgown—with Moore being very Flat on a Hot Tin Roof—rather than sleeping with all the men in town. The shocking, in-your-face cavern between the cultural standards of Old Society and New London is lessened because, well, it’s Demi Moore and you don’t ask your movie star to engage in HBO-esque debauchery—even in Brave New World’s constantly-gyrating sci-fi Euphoria. Moore is actually less here, representing a series of ineffective compromises that sacrifice the source’s bite for prestige TV trappings.
Transferring the “savage” identifier from indigenous people to the working poor (complete with a white woman, who’s there purely as set up for Season 2, talking about how the New Londoners took their land) is the series’ wrongheaded attempt to preserve aspects of its source material in name only. This faux-reverence pops up all over the place, always a disappointment. The slogan of New London—“Everybody happy now,” grammatically diminished from the original’s spooky pseudo-utopian phrase—is another unforced error in a show that’s feet are full of self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
The show (and John) eventually moves on from the Savage Lands’ Arkansan backwater to more visually interesting locales, like New London’s stark white, hyper-minimalist upper echelons or stark grey, hyper-minimalist lower Epsilons residing in what looks to be Apple’s “1984” commercial.
A visually shallow show, full of flesh and fancy fashion (where costume designer Susie Coulthard at least goes the extra mile to put the “Peacock” in “peacocking”), Brave New World is a self-serious sci-fi world glamorized with Black Mirror silliness (directed in part by Black Mirror alum Owen Harris). Goya’s The Third of May 1808—a brutal painting of revolution, featuring a lower class individual standing against an oppressive, lockstep group—is a prominent piece of art in the office of New London’s controller that’s impending parallel is one of the show’s driving plotlines. But any bold chiaroscuro referencing the artwork is set aside in favor of visuals packed with 2D digital Indra icons in subjective point-of-view shots, generic flattened background FX, or yet another rave-lit orgy.
Speaking of, the residents of New London are literally horny for poverty porn, one of the more trenchant takedowns of the eugenically determined class system, and John is all too happy to supply it. Playing into the “cool new kid at school” vibe, he provides embellished stories of hardship and winning people over by slumming with the Epsilons. John even stumbles right into the middle of a holographic orgy, which leads to a zombie-esque scene where he flees from the Night of the Giving Head.
This theatricality seems to have come from nowhere, but then, John’s entire arc is strange and arbitrary. Without any meaningful foundation, John suits whatever the story needs. He undergoes a massive shift from being a timid loser with an unrequited crush to a confident bad boy screwing through New London. The latter certainly suits Ehrenreich’s acting style better, as his hard, heavy-browed stares and cheeky grins are far more effective than his stammering over-the-top ham sandwiches.
But Brave New World isn’t just John adapting. The muddled show’s plotlines rise and fall so erratically that THEY seem in need of a soma. There’s John’s acclimation; the love triangle with him, Bernard, and Lenina; the suicide subplot; the stirring unrest (catalyzed by John’s arrival); and a Westworld-like sidestory that answers the least necessary question of all: Where did this dystopia COME from?
Brave New World has all the hallmarks of a sci-fi series moving beyond its original scope: clones, catastrophes, and answers to questions never asked. The show still shows flashes of creativity and purpose—like scenes where the click-clack of a PEZ-like soma dispenser punctuates emotionally stressful beats in a conversation or a digitally-enhanced game of racquetball that blasts us with a much-needed burst of movement and color—but it almost always feels like the show was pushed to focus on the least important but intensely marketable aesthetic aspects (naked dancing/sex and lots of it!) while half-assing the actual content.
It’s not an immediately gripping techno-satire, nor a mindbending puzzle box. It’s not an impressive sci-fi world, nor a bold piece of sex-violence-profanity prestige. It’s just a disappointing adaptation trying to be everything for everyone, clinging to Huxley’s brand while practicing exactly what it preaches against. “Every feeling has a beginning,” says Hannah John-Kamen’s genderbent Helm Watson, reimagined as a sort of VR pornographer. “Over time they get bent, diluted—less vivid.” Bent, diluted, and deluded are all good ways to describe this take on Brave New World.
Brave New World premieres Wednesday, July 15th on Peacock.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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