Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at the new adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World from NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming service.
In the age of fractured attention and a surplus of great television, the ugly truth is that a streaming service is only as good as its first flagship series. Netflix had House of Cards, Disney+ had The Mandalorian, and Quibi had… whatever Quibi had. So when NBCUniversal announced that its new streaming service, Peacock, would include an original programming slate headlined by an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s cerebral, anti-consumerist 1932 dystopian novel, Brave New World, the buzz was decidedly muted. Huxley’s work, while seminal and excellent, doesn’t exactly scream prime time entertainment.
Well, it didn’t until now. To the likely dismay of Huxley purists, Peacock’s Brave New World is sexy, gorgeous, and exciting, a feast of visual and sensory delights that’s often purposely empty in its portrayal of purposely empty people. Moment to moment, the visual trademarks and motifs of the series call to mind one polarizing yet bold story after another: here a hint of the glorious, artfully designed body worship of Hannibal, there the chic, explosive vapidity of Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Most of all, this version of Brave New World owes a debt to another titillating sci-fi series: Westworld. Yet it quickly usurps that HBO series’ influence by mostly giving up on big, narratively weighty questions in favor of just having a damn good time.
The bones of Huxley’s story are still there, if nothing else. Stiff, insecure Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd, who has deserved a starring role since his memorable single-season arc on Game of Thrones) and popular Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay) live in New London, where family, monogamy, and privacy are all outlawed and any strong emotions are kept in check by soma, a wonder drug that citizens eat like candy out of stylish Pez-dispenser-like canisters. The city is a utopia of sorts, with lots of sex, little violence, and no war, but it can also be stifling thanks to a caste system that New London’s residents are discouraged from questioning. When Bernard and Lenina end up recovering a “Savage” named John (Solo‘s Alden Ehrenreich) and his mother, Linda (Demi Moore), from the wilds of America, their understanding of the world and their place in it begin to drastically change.
David Wiener (Homecoming, Fear the Walking Dead) developed the series, and Black Mirror alums Owen Harris and Gustav Danielsson serve as director and cinematographer, respectively, of the first two episodes. These two firecracker episodes are the series’ high point, introducing a thrilling — if surface-skating — new version of Brave New World with a strong voice and relentless energy. John’s homeland is here reimagined as The Savage Lands, a theme-park-like area where citizens of New London can visit Americans and observe them as they perform a series of scenes displaying their core values: ”Ownership, competition, jealousy, and strife,” as a tour guide explains. All the while, old country-western songs twang from nearby radios.
The series, which is often coyly funny, adds in several other modern elements as well. Hannah John-Kamen appears in a fabulous jagged wig to drop some great lines about the art of the orgy, while the entirety of New London is maintained by a system called Indra, which connects everyone through tech-equipped contact lenses. The Bernard of Huxley’s book has his roughest edges shaved off, while John the Savage is transformed from a Shakespeare-quoting brute to a clever, questioning everyman.
Some may perceive Peacock’s Brave New World as a failure for the same reason that it’s eminently watchable; its “dystopia,” overflowing with hot sex, party drugs, and designer clothes, never quite realizes its weak spot with enough precision to make anything feel truly sinister. Episode after episode, the version of society — checked out, controlled, and discreetly unequal — that Huxley expressly condemned mostly just ends up looking like a lot of fun. The series sidesteps several tired dystopian cliches by doing away with a focused moral or villain, but when it finally does dig into the dark underbelly of New London, nearly six episodes in, it also loses some of its creative stamina.
Still, it’s hard to hold ideological shortcomings against a series that’s this well-cast, coolly designed, and compellingly directed. On top of all that, this vision of Brave New World is pure stimulation. Its choreographed crowd scenes and promise of communal existence are an almost violent contrast to modern-day viewers’ reality in global quarantine. Peacock might just have a win on its hands thanks to the inadvertent perfect timing of the series’ central fantasy.
Is this the latest iteration of Brave New World a work of art worthy of its source material? No, but it’s something else entirely. In fact, as I watched the series, I repeatedly had the inexplicable urge to describe it as “pretty lit,” a ridiculous maxim that reflects the narrative tightrope-act over the border between entertainment and emptiness. I don’t blame anyone who comes to Brave New World hoping for a faithful modern adaptation and goes away disappointed, but if you relinquish control and let the good times roll, I can promise you one thing: it’s pretty lit.