Unraveling the Tense, Provocative, Ambitious Layers of Noughts + Crosses Is Worthwhile but Not Easy

Come for the star-crossed lovers, stay to work through the internal tension the script-flipped world of Albion provokes.

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Unraveling the Tense, Provocative, Ambitious Layers of <i>Noughts + Crosses</i> Is Worthwhile but Not Easy

In many ways, Peacock’s latest BBC import, the alt-timeline drama Noughts + Crosses, is no different from any other slickly produced adaptation of a fan-favorite YA property. You’ve got your glowingly beautiful star-crossed teen lovers, courtesy leads Masali Baduza and Jack Rowan. You’ve got your killer soundtrack and luscious aesthetics, courtesy the series’ extremely thoughtful production team. You’ve even got—courtesy of grime superstar Stormzy, who shows up late in the season’s six-episode run as the editor of a major newspaper—your requisite surprise celebrity cameo. So far, so Riverdale.

Where Noughts Crosses strikes an even closer resemblance to every other teen drama currently airing, though, is in the progressive thrust of its premise, which is (as is also so frequently the case, even in the best of modern Teen TV) both unapologetically heavy-handed and endearingly earnest. In the case of Noughts Crosses—which is based on the wildly popular 2001 Malorie Blackman novel of the same name—this means that the star-crossed romance that kicks off between Sephy (Baduza) and Callum (Rowan) in Episode 1 isn’t set up solely to offer a fresh take on Romeo and Juliet, but also to serve as the fulcrum for a violently explicit lesson on the dangers of conferring social and economic privilege to one race and culture while brutally oppressing another.

The thing is, most modern teen series do their moralizing against the backdrop of worlds that reflect, more or less, the one we’re really stuck in. Recent reboots like Roswell, New Mexico and Party of Five, for example, have used their tropey earnestness to underscore the cruelty of the U.S.’s real and increasingly xenophobic mistreatment of non-white immigrants, while shows like David Makes Man, All American and even Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger have made the anti-Black racism that exists in America IRL central to their very narrative framework. Noughts + Crosses, meanwhile, goes hard in the opposite direction, inverting world history so that, rather than it being Europeans who brutally colonized African countries and enslaved vast swaths of their populations, it’s a unified empire of West African nations that, 700 years ago, conquered a barbaric and culturally backwards Europe. Against this backdrop, where Albion (fka Britain) exists as a colonized apartheid state in which people of dark-skinned African descent (Crosses) hold political, cultural and economic power, while people of white-skinned European descent (Noughts) are beaten down by systemic injustice and state-sanctioned violence, the familiarity of the forbidden romance between Sephy (a rich Cross, and the eldest daughter of Albion’s ruthlessly ambitious Home Secretary) and Cal (the poor son of Sephy’s Nought domestic servant) takes on a provocative new tension. All the same beats are there, but somehow, with a single flip of a historical coin, they feel so much more loaded.

Well, I say somehow. But even someone as newly woke as Sephy is after she puts one (1) dark brown flesh-colored bandage on Cal’s pale white finger should be able to see that that somehow, obviously, is racism. That’s the whole point of this script-flipped exercise: It’s well acted, and the texture of its world is beautifully produced, but nothing about the story that Noughts Crosses is telling is exceptional. Not as an update on Romeo and Juliet (a meaningless reference, for a world in which British history was diverted two hundred years before the Bard would have been born), and not as a sociopolitical drama whose shape tin-eared white journalists in our world might, prior to the summer of 2020, have insisted on describing as “racially charged.” Until horrifyingly recently, interracial relationships were so illegal that a new word (miscegenation) was invented whole cloth just so racist white Americans could sound fancy while decrying it. To this day—and I mean that extremely literally—Black and brown people agitating for racial justice (or just, like, living their lives) are regularly demonized by the media, politicians, and the white public at large. Like, you think Noughts Crosses opening on an armored Cross officer bludgeoning an innocent Nought teen unprovoked is unsubtle? Or Sephy’s bigoted soldier boyfriend going on a violent rampage at an underground club for interracial couples after he gets suspicious she might be there with Callum? My dudes, turn on the news.

And yet, from official BBC copy to quippy summaries by (white) British talk show hosts to (most surprisingly of all) Baduza herself, in conversation with those selfsame white hosts, the series’ premise is repeatedly described with words like dangerous, incendiary, dystopian. On the one hand, there is some sense in this—for Callum and Sephy, as historically common as the danger their love provokes is, it’s still, you know, danger, and the feelings it stirs up both within their respective families and in the broader world whose taboos they set out to burn down are incendiary. As for dystopian—well, there’s obviously a lot of productive tension to unpack in the idea of a white person living in the cultural fallout of European colonialism looking at a photo-negative of their relatively privileged world and seeing a dystopia (see below). That said, I do think we can extend some measure of grace to a pop culture audience who’s seen the YA industry apply “dystopian” to every story about teens learning to push back against the power structures shaping their lives that can’t otherwise be slotted as science fiction or fantasy. The status in Noughts + Crosses is not quo, and the lives of its teen heroes are at risk as a result. As far as popular understanding of YA tropes go, that’s dystopian.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Noughts + Crosses is, in the literal sense, dystopian, even if intellectually it’s clear it’s no such thing. It’s mortifying to hit these layers of unconscious resistance to, like, super basic shit about the rotten legacy of empire building. But it’s also important I think to be mortified, if breaking through those layers is something you’re ready to do.

It’s this tension—more, perhaps, than the story of Cal and Sephy’s romance, itself—that makes Noughts Crosses so compelling, both to watch, and to follow as it elicits reaction across the board. Because here’s the thing: Sitting in that tension for six hour-long episodes—especially as a white viewer; especially as a white viewer who really has been trying to put in the work of understanding the myriad ways in which the white supremacist systems that benefit me have, for centuries, worked to suppress Black and brown people’s equality—is instructive. There is a viscerality to a story that plays out on screen that even something as immersive as a novel can’t match, which is only bolstered by the investment of both time and attention a whole season of television demands. That viscerality, in the context of Noughts Crosses’s meticulously considered world, is provocative. For some, that provocation might feel uncomfortable. For others, useful. For others still, it might seem dangerous (as in, is it wise to give a certain type of white viewer, in this particular historical moment, reason to viciously root against Black characters?), or hypocritical (isn’t this just celebrating the inequality social justice warriors claim to want to end?), or like a depressingly low bar (a Cross professor calling Noughts “uppity,” Cross partygoers mistaking Callum’s dad for a waiter at his military graduation, Sephy accidentally flinging an n-word equivalent at some Nought attackers in front of Callum… that’s all it takes to get white viewers to understand what Black people have been talking about for generations??). What it’s unlikely to be, though, is forgettable.

That said, while the series’ texture-rich, self-aware attention to worldbuilding succeeds in provoking strong reactions from its viewers—not to mention, more than meets the standards set by The Man in the High Castle, the streaming era’s last alt-history heavy hitter—the full scope of the stories Noughts + Crosses wants to (and could!) tell is too ambitious for the space it’s given. So much depth is conferred to the inner lives and motivations of Sephy and Callum’s families, and so much thoughtful complexity woven into the ways in which centuries of West African influence have shaped Albion culture, that six hours isn’t nearly enough time to fit it all in. As a result, everything feels rushed. The arc of Cal and Sephy’s romance is declared more than it is felt, as is Sephy’s turn from privileged naïf to woke ally, and Cal’s from peaceful optimist to violent terrorist, and his brother’s from violent terrorist to self-sacrificing hero, and her father’s from ruthless political schemer to whatever he ends up being at the end. And so it goes, down the line. Name a narrative arc—Jasmine’s (Bonnie Henna) depression; Yaro’s (Luke Bailey) struggle for paternal recognition; Elaine’s (Jodie Tyack) desperate attempts to find community; Albion’s growing interest in breaking free from the Aprican Empire—and I’ll show you a dozen places where, had the season been given even just a few more episodes to stretch across, that arc might have thrived.

All of this is a shame, as, again, the series’ aesthetic sensibility is so vibrant and complete, and the cast’s performances are, across the board, both subtle and tightly controlled. With a premise that could easily tip into cringe at any moment, the fact that Albion feels so lived in, and its residents so alive, really makes one wish it could just have been given the space to do more.

Happily, between the longstanding popularity of Malorie Blackman’s original novel (Noughts + Crosses had been adapted for the stage multiple times before the BBC got ahold of it), the glowing charm of both Baduza and Rowan, and a relevance to current events that only seems to be growing, it would boggle the mind if a second season wasn’t ordered.

In the meantime, I’ll be working through the tension, and listening to the Season 1 soundtrack on loop.

The first season of Noughts + Crosses is available to stream now on Peacock.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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