About halfway through Brave New World, one of the most prominent launch series on NBC’s new Peacock streaming service, Wilhelmina “Helm” Watson (Killjoys’ Hannah John-Kamen) discusses the challenge of constantly entertaining the pleasure-obsessed residents of New London.
“They want the New Thing, because with every new thing, there’s a chance that it could be the Big Thing,” she muses. “So we give them the New Thing. Bigger, hotter, harder, faster. We have to give it to them like that, because if we don’t, they might realize that the New Thing isn’t new at all. It’s really just the old thing, but more of it. And if it’s old, it’s boring. And if it’s boring, they will turn it off and they’ll be alone with their thoughts. We know where that leads, don’t we?”
Helm directs feelies, a form of cinema author Aldous Huxley envisioned in his 1932 novel Brave New World. Feelies incorporate physical sensation along with sights and sounds, but they’re just another iteration of movies. Helm is worried about the novelty wearing off, but her monologue could easily be an expression of the anxieties felt by the show’s writers. The Brave New World TV series certainly isn’t a New Thing for an audience used to slick, oppressive dystopia stories. And because it’s premiering on an all-new streaming service without the built-in audience investment that Disney+ brought to projects like The Mandalorian, it’s unlikely to be the next big thing.
Still, it’s far from the boring same-old Helm is worried about. Showrunner David Wiener (Homecoming and The Killing) has managed to produce a surprisingly funny work of dystopian fiction. By leaning into the absurd aspects of the show’s setting and sharing stories of largely likable or at least highly relatable characters, Wiener and his crew have produced a show that’s far less emotionally taxing than Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but still delivers sharp insights about human nature and the societies we build.
Huxley synthesized the 1930s’ latest innovations in industrialized capitalism, genetics, and psychology to imagine a future where the population is divided into rigid caste systems, and pleasure and stability are the highest priorities. His novel was so disturbingly prophetic that it takes relatively little updating to modernize it.
The story largely centers on Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones), a New London counselor who keeps people happy by prescribing them the right color of the mood-altering drug Soma, and Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), a reproductive scientist who prefers monogamy to the orgies her peers regularly engage in. When the two of them head on a vacation to the Savage Lands, a resort and amusement park where the elites of New London can observe Americans in their natural, wild state, an uprising by the natives forces them to flee for their lives, along with their savior, John the Savage (Solo: A Star Wars Story star Alden Ehrenreich).
Huxley’s novel was so influential on the science-fiction genre that any Brave New World adaptation can feel derivative because of the more recent works it inspired. The costuming used to divide New London’s caste system is weirdly similar to what’s used in Community’s dystopian parody “App Development and Condiments,” while the contrast between the excesses of New London and the rough lives of the residents of the Savage Lands is reminiscent of The Hunger Games.
The first two episodes, directed by Black Mirror veteran Owen Harris, also feel highly reminiscent of that series, thanks to the introduction of Indra, a sophisticated artificial intelligence that connects all the residents of New London through high-tech contact lenses. While it’s meant to provide a central mystery and bring Huxley’s book in line with modern technology, the plot involving Indra’s development and evolution feels like it belongs to a different show.
Brave New World really hits its stride when the characters return from the Savage Lands and have to puzzle out how they fit into a supposedly perfect society that feels on the brink of collapse. Ehrenreich does a solid job of playing up John’s internal turmoil as he enjoys all the luxuries New London has to offer, while stirring up chaos wherever he goes by talking to people who aren’t supposed to have opinions, and teaching his new compatriots how to punch each other. In many ways, Brave New World more closely resembles a late-stage pod-person story than a traditional dystopian drama, as John tries to argue for the necessity of negative emotions like jealousy and anger, while Bernard wonders why he doesn’t want to just be happy all the time.
Lenina is a bit less consistent. She’s electrifying as she tries to stretch beyond the limits of her status as a Beta, discovering a passion for competition while struggling to cope with the trauma she experienced in the Savage Lands. Brave New World undermines her story by making her the focus of a love triangle with John and Bernard, though there’s some extra nuance, given that the idea of either men having a claim to her is effectively heretical.
But the real standout is Bernard, who Lloyd plays with the same mix of insecurity and power he captured as the exiled heir to the Iron Throne. While he’s an Alpha Plus, the highest-status tier, Bernard is widely rumored to have been the result of a genetic-engineering mishap, and he suffers from a brutal case of imposter syndrome. He’s constantly clawing for status and acceptance, and his scenes with the melodramatic Helm, which are filled with catty criticisms of their peers and periodic earnest discussions about the challenges they face, are some of the best in the series.
While Bernard’s quips are consistently hilarious, much of the best humor comes from visual gags. When John hangs out in Helm’s waiting room and starts stirring up trouble, the other guests all respond by dispensing themselves some Soma to calm their nerves. When Bernard throws a glass of Soma fizz to the ground in a rare outburst, a group of the servant-class Gammas immediately descend on the scene to clean up his mess. The same level of choreography can also be used to off-putting effect, like when John tries to hide among a crowd of Epsilon laborers, but is outed when he can’t follow the rhythms they all march to.
The absurd amount of sex, over-the-top costumes, bursts of goofy humor, and soapy plots keep Brave New World from really feeling like prestige television. But that lighter approach works well with the show’s setting, which replaces the relentless brutality and monstrous villains of most dystopian stories with oppressive pleasantness. Brave New World offers a relatively breezy way to examine timeless issues of class consciousness and escapism, just relevant enough to not feel like the meaningless amusements it preaches against. That’s a good thing, because when the real world is this grim, it’s hard to turn off the TV and be alone with your thoughts.
All nine episodes of Brave New World are now available to stream on Peacock.
A darkly satiric vision of a utopian future where humans are genetically bred and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively serve a ruling order. A powerful work of speculative fiction that has enthralled and terrified readers for generations.
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