Brave New World is the new streaming service Peacock's flagship launch show. It's an expensive dystopian sci-fi drama series with prestigious source material (Aldous Huxley's classic 1932 novel), a cast that features movie stars past (special guest star Demi Moore) and present (Solo's Alden Ehrenreich), and copious HBO-style sex. On paper, it has the elements of a hit. But in practice, it's an example of how many things have to go right to make a successful show, and Brave New World has too many parts out of place, with the most vital part — an interpretation of Huxley's themes that would have made the show relevant to today — missing entirely.
If you read Brave New World, it was probably a long time ago, perhaps in high school, and you may forget some of the details of what it's about. It's set in a future where things are supposedly perfect. Society is peaceful and stable, because everyone has accepted their assigned class role, with Alpha Pluses running things at the top of the pyramid and drone-like Epsilons providing labor. Any time anyone experiences any kind of emotional disturbance, they pop a soma — a happy pill to keep them regulated — which they take constantly. And monogamy is prohibited, so everyone is sexually available to everyone else, while families don't exist, as children are born in laboratories and raised by social conditioning teams. It's a dystopia where people are docile and pacified and have everything provided for them, so they have no need or inclination to question the status quo.
The people who do question the status quo are seen as troublemakers. Two of them are Lenina Crowne (Downton Abbey's Jessica Brown Findlay), a Beta Plus scientist who desires to be monogamous, and Bernard Marx (Game of Thrones' Harry Lloyd), an Alpha Plus bureaucrat who's unhappy with his place in the system. They travel together to the Savage Lands, a theme park (in the book it was a reservation) where they observe the way society used to be when there was monogamy and want and crime and that kind of bad old stuff. The savage ways appeal to Bernard and Lenina, but then they get caught up in a violent uprising against the park's New World overlords, and are rescued by John the Savage (Ehrenreich) and his mother Linda (Moore), who travel back to New London with them. John's rebellious nature influences John and Lenina and threatens to undermine the whole structure of the society.
The plot of the series is broadly faithful to the novel, with the biggest change being the elevation of Lenina to a main character. In the novel, she was a sex object for the men to project their fears and desires onto, but here she gets an interior life of her own, and is the primary point-of-view character for the series. There are other plot changes, and expansions necessary to make Huxley's relatively short novel into what seems intended to be an ongoing episodic series, including a vague investigation subplot into the mysterious death of an Epsilon that, through six episodes sent for review, does not appear to be going anywhere interesting.
The most insurmountable problem with this iteration of Brave New World is that the frictionless dystopia it depicts doesn't feel like one the world we live in is heading toward, and the show doesn't try to make a case that it is. When Huxley wrote the novel, he was reacting to the decadence of the prosperous 1920s, the Depression that followed, socialist and Communist movements spreading around the world, and dehumanizing assembly line mass production, which was relatively new at the time. It was a response to contemporary social anxieties about modernity removing individuality from people. That context is removed in the series, and not replaced with social commentary relevant to 2020.
The absence of allegory makes Brave New World feel purposeless. It could have taken a greater thematic rather than just visual cue from Black Mirror and made the show's shiny happy panopticon and pressure to conform explicitly about social media, or played up the class conflict angle more, but it didn't. And a dystopia where the elites give the people enough so that they don't question why they don't have more doesn't feel like our future when our present is the opposite. People are not checked out; they're more aware of inequality and injustice than ever before, but the fight can feel futile against a power structure that knows we know and doesn't care. 2020's dystopian future (and present) is more 1984 — "a boot stamping on a human face, forever" — than Brave New World's vision of sex and soma and collective pleasure-seeking.
Brave New World's lack of perspective would be more forgivable if it were more entertaining, but as a show it's just kind of blah. The costumes and sets are rendered in fitting shades of beige. The performances don't stand out (though seeing Harry Lloyd as a flustered bureaucrat made me wish I was watching Counterpart, the excellent sci-fi espionage series on which he played a somewhat similar role). There are numerous scenes of orgies with writhing, topless extras, but they lack eroticism. They feel half-hearted, like they had to do them to show that this was a serious TV-MA drama, but they weren't comfortable with it.
To be fair to Peacock, Brave New World isn't necessarily going to be reflective of the quality of its offerings. It was developed for two of NBCU's cable channels, first for Syfy and then for USA, before being moved to Peacock, and the production value feels more in line with those channels than HBO or Netflix, the giants with whom Peacock is aiming to compete. We'll see if Sam Esmail's Battlestar Galactica series becomes its real sci-fi flagship.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
Brave New World is available to stream on Peacock.