Brave New World: What Defines a Dystopian TV Show?

Peacock’s adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a dystopia disguised as a utopia. But what is a dystopia anyway?

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<i>Brave New World</i>: What Defines a Dystopian TV Show?

The opening moments of the new Peacock series Brave New World are bleak.

And by that I mean that they’re literally just white text on a black screen that forces the audience to understand and accept the Terms and Conditions of this show’s new world order. In this futuristic society, our modern-day concerns like privacy and monogamy are done for—and everyone better be happy about it.

But then, like a visual double-dose of Xanax, the warning labels give way to a world of genetically coded humans living and working inside what is known as New London. Here, it’s nothing but a life-sized, sparkling clean terrarium of beiges, silvers, and whites that shimmer under a sunny skyline.

“I guess we are a utopian show, in that it’s about a utopia,” showrunner and creator David Wiener says of what sets his adaptation of author Aldous Huxley’s prescient 1932 novel apart from its more obviously anxiety-producing, dystopian TV brethren like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. There, the weather always appears to be dark and gloomy, perhaps because the government rulers feel zero culpability in publicly maiming, torturing, and killing their citizens in the name of what they believe to be the greater good.

Wiener adds, “Huxley was so concerned that people would become so stimulated through sex or so numb through drugs or so distracted by media and entertainment that they wouldn’t look inside themselves or look outside themselves in an uncomfortable way” and that “our story of dystopia is the dystopia that this place makes inside people.”

In adapting the novel, Wiener says it was important to him and his team to acknowledge that stories of dystopia and speculative fiction “come with this whole set of tropes.” And “instead of trying to dismiss them,” they wanted to figure out “how can we take those tropes that are familiar and do them in a deliciously weird way?”

So, is it correct to even call Brave New World a dystopian story?

“People often assume that dystopia is the opposite of a utopia when, in fact, the relationship tends to be much more complicated. I generally argue that they are better viewed as siblings with the same parents,” says Sean P. Connors, an associate professor of English education at the University of Arkansas who lectures and writes on dystopian fiction—and who is also an avowed fan of The CW’s dystopian drama The 100.

He adds that a utopia “is a society that has perfected human behavior. And, to perfect human behavior, you have to control it. And that inevitably entails a loss of freedom.”

Because, as Connors points out, one person’s utopia can quickly and easily be another’s dystopia.

“I think we see that logic at work today in American society in the sense that Donald Trump’s vision of a great America resonates with a portion of the electorate. But, for a lot more people, it understandably elicits feelings of repulsion, if not horror.”

Similarly, Brave New World’s, well, world is only a utopia for a select few. They are the ones who have been genetically pre-ordained to be the top-ranking “Alphas,” (like Harry Lloyd’s Bernard), and slightly less-desirable “Betas,” (like Jessica Brown Findlay’s Lenina), of a tightly controlled caste system that determines who will have the power to rule and a freedom to partake in an excess of sex and pharmaceutical drugs. The Epsilon (like Joseph Morgan’s CJack60), who are there to do and die and clean up the mess, would probably not see everything so blissfully. Nor would Alden Ehrenreich’s John, an outsider dubbed a “savage” who winds up in New London after growing up in the weathered remains of the world as we knew it.

“The question that the book puts forward, and I think the TV show examines, is at what cost,” says showrunner Wiener, who wonders how much of our current society’s time and quote-unquote happiness “is actually determined relative to our suffering. If you never lose love or never feel heartache, can you love?” He says his characters have “done away with things like monogamy and family and violence and money and religion.”

Wiener adds that while “those are all things that we recognize from our culture that can make our culture fraught and full of conflict,” when they disappear you have to ask “what’s inside you? Is that a good place to be? If it feels good, is it good? Are you missing something essential and fundamentally human?”

Obviously, Wiener and his Brave New World cast and crew didn’t set out to make a show that would air during a global health crisis. But he argues that the coronavirus pandemic just further exemplifies Huxley’s message in the source material. While the author couldn’t predict things like Twitter, Wiener says he was worried even in 1932 about “the tendency of human beings to use technology to distance themselves from things that might cause them anxiety or discomfort.”

“In our cultural moment, people aren’t interested in engaging with opinions that are different from theirs,” Wiener says. “They aren’t interested in getting to know anybody beyond their bubble. I think that really aligns with A) what keeps people blissful in New London and B) I think that’s really dangerous in terms of democracy and a functional society.”

Professor Connors says dystopian series make good business sense right now simply because “historically speaking, dystopias have tended to be most popular with people during periods of social and economic instability.” He says the original Brave New World emerged from the dust of the 1929 stock market crash while George Orwell’s 1984 was released in 1949 as many licked their wounds from World War II. And Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games book series, which popularized a whole new branch of young adult fiction, came out in 2008 “in the wake of the housing market collapsing, but concurrent with the War on Terror and the start of the rest of the Great Recession.”

He also argues that it fits in well with an evolving definition of what a dystopian TV show looks like. Appropriate, as Wiener’s credits also include AMC apocalypse drama Fear the Walking Dead.

“Traditionally, writers like Huxley and Orwell associated dystopias with totalitarian states, but today, in popular culture, they’re just as likely to involve rogue corporations or post-apocalyptic scenarios,” he says, adding that while he hasn’t watched the TV series, “I do think The Walking Dead comics are dystopic insofar as they often tend to comment on contemporary social problems,” like environmental degradation.

When asked what he would like to see more of in regards to these TV adaptations of famous dystopian works, Connors says racially diverse leads. He points to Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower book series. Written in 1993 but set in 2020s Los Angeles, it deals with climate change, racism, wealth inequality, and more.

Yet another dystopian author who could clearly foresee the future.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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