'Brave New World': TV Review

Steve Schofield/Peacock
Lavish and lifeless.
7/15/2020

The long-gestating Aldous Huxley adaptation about a dystopian future society, starring Jessica Brown Findlay and Alden Ehrenreich, debuts on Peacock.

There's no counting the number of crises currently plaguing America, but a hair-raising uniformity and orderliness among its people isn't one of them. The past five or so years have, in fact, given us myriad reasons to fear the ongoing fragmentation and polarization of our nation, with technology accelerating the creation and distribution of "alternative facts" and algorithmically curated realities.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is only the latest example of this tendency toward fracture and balkanization, as one marginalized group is blamed for the disease; other marginalized groups are left to suffer the bulk of its ravages; easy and effective measures like mask-wearing fall prey to the culture wars; and thousands of opportunists exploit the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the contagion, chipping away at expertise, consensus and social cooperation to found and swell their own information cults.

All of which is to say, there are plenty of dystopian elements to be mined from today. And yet here comes Peacock's Brave New World to warn us of a world in which technology has ensured that there's too much conformity, too much sharing, too many orgies (more on that soon). If creator David Wiener thought about why Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel is relevant to 2020, viewers aren't clued in on the answer.

The nine-part debut season feels like it's built on miscalculation atop miscalculation, but the gravest one is that the citizens of New London are effectively extraterrestrials. They resemble no human society to date: There are no parents, spouses, children or, really, friends. Monogamy is verboten, while marriages and families are the outdated practices of the "Savages," who are coded as poor (white) Americans and live on a reservation that New Londoners treat like a zoo.

The civilized do have bosses, one of whom reprimands an employee by pulling up a hologram of her having sex and calling her "selfish" for doing it with the same person 22 times, as happens in an early scene. (Sleeping with a single partner means depriving others of the pleasures of one's body. The solution, as it is for practically any problem in New London: Get thee to an orgy.)

As in any dystopia onscreen — and Brave New World is plotted as rotely as any of them — the characters we follow are the square pegs. Each person in New London is genetically modified, then trained from childhood, to conform to one of five strictly hierarchical castes. As an Alpha-Plus, Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd, Counterpart) is at the top of the heap, but his task of indoctrinating all those below him to believe that everyone is happy in New London is hampered by his own deep unhappiness.

Bernard is smitten with Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey), the Beta-plus whose aforementioned moments of intimacy he threw back in her face. But when the two visit the Savage Lands, where he hopes to woo her, she meets someone more intriguing: John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story), who has experience with all kinds of things foreign to her, like music with lyrics, a mother (Demi Moore), and hours upon hours of moping. It's the last one that grabs her most: New Londoners pop feel-good pills at the slightest discomfort. Emotions are an exoticism.

Those spherical, translucent pills — in yellow, orange and red, signifying different levels of intensity — dot New London, but each resident also carries around their own metallic Pez dispenser. The ubiquitous clicking noise of pearl-clutching New Londoners reacting to small incivilities is one of the few ways that the writers seem to have thought through what it feels like to live in this society. In contrast, a scene in which a character doesn't understand what blood is strains credulity — surely even in a designed-to-death utopia like this one, a child has tripped and skinned their knee before. And in a world where there's both constant rutting and constant displays of power by the Alphas against those below them, it feels flat-out improbable that, say, the worst thing that might happen to a lower-ranking woman is that she wouldn't orgasm during a sexual encounter.

Too much of Brave New World is the writers delighting in shocking the audience with how strange New London's customs are. No one has ever cried before or knows what "a virginity" is. Bernard's superior (Sen Mitsuji) gives him a performance review while the employee is on the toilet. Everyone is young and hot, and when they reach a certain age, they're sent to the crematorium — not that the show dares to consider the darkness of that premise. That's the thing about New London — its practices are so extreme, their ramifications so unexplored and thus their resonance to our world so limited that anyone who lives there is too outlandish to care about. The few times they do approach humanity, it simply feels like a narrative contrivance.

John eventually ends up in New London, which he has a stronger connection to than his humble existence in the Savage Lands would suggest. If there's one believable thing about the show's characterizations, it's John's conflicting desires to take advantage of his unexpected privileged position and to do away with New London's cruel class system. But unbeknownst to him, New London is already crumbling from the inside — with a disgruntled Epsilon named CJack60 (Joseph Morgan) ready to fight, leaders (Nina Sosanya, Ed Stoppard) too afraid to confront its problems head-on and party (i.e., orgy) designer Helm (Hannah John-Kamen) providing endless distraction for the masses. (So why aren't the group-sex scenes remotely sexy?)

Also endlessly distracting, but in the good way: the sleek, futuristic production design by David Lee, which makes New London look like a kind of exclusive, ostentatiously eco-friendly airport only millionaires would be allowed to set foot in, and the corresponding costume designs by Susie Coulthard that are part-sticky sexbot, part-Eileen Fisher's 2050 spring collection.

Huxley wrote Brave New World to warn readers of technology-assisted totalitarian control. The effect of this adaptation, in contrast, seems to be reassurance: that we, unlike the pathetic saps of the future, have the freedom to marry, have kids, feel sad and not attend orgies if we don't want to. Hooray? It doesn't stop our world from feeling any less like a dystopia, not that the show's writers have anything to say on that condition. If this lavish but lifeless production is Peacock's most prestigious original offering, well, there's always Jim and Pam.

Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, Harry Lloyd, Alden Ehrenreich, Hannah John-Kamen, Demi Moore, Sen Mitsuji, Joseph Morgan, Nina Sosanya, Kylie Bunbury

Creator: David Wiener

Showrunner: David Wiener

Premieres Wednesday, Jul. 15, on Peacock