For all the fog-filled, neon-lit orgies in “Brave New World” — and believe me, there are quite a few — the new sci-fi series peaks when it’s giddily screwing with those watching, not watching people giddily– well, you know. Peacock’s marquee launch title represents yet another new streaming service, and the “last” to arrive in a nine-month parade of platforms: Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, and one very expensive punchline have flooded the market with more TV shows than ever, and audiences are eagerly gobbling them up. Peacock, led by this serialized adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, may be arriving during a rare rationing period, but it still represents consumers’ collective gluttony.
And “Brave New World” knows it. About midway through the nine-episode first season, an artist named Wilhelmina (Hannah John-Kamen) — who replaces the character Helmhotz Watson from Huxley’s book — explains why she has to keep coming up with new pieces of party-starting entertainment, or “feelies,” for the citizens of New London to enjoy.
“They want the new thing because with every new thing there’s a chance it could be the big thing,” she says. “So, we give them a 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 then they’ll be alone with their thoughts.”
The horror! Moments like this invite a wry smile, as you realize the show isn’t just commenting on the modern world, but its own role within it. “Brave New World” is definitely a new thing that Peacock’s masterminds are hoping is the next big thing. But even if it’s not, they know it’s still a new thing (even though it’s based on an old thing), and as long as it’s not boring, people will keep watching, and if people keep watching, they’ll keep using Peacock, and the world will go round and round without anyone questioning the nature of this self-perpetuating hype cycle.
To be perfectly honest, “Brave New World” had its hooks in me before it went meta, but backing up the convictions inherent to its dark social satire with the choice to criticize its own part in the process certainly amped up my appreciation of this slick, beautiful production. Altering the source material to better suit modern parallels while featuring a handful of excellent performances, showrunner David Wiener’s adaptation isn’t too serious to have a little fun, nor is it blind to the commonalities between a drug that renders you emotionally neutral and an era of nonstop TV that keeps viewers sedate, happy, and largely braindead.
In “Brave New World,” that drug is called soma and everyone in New London pops the pea-sized mood-changers like Pez. If you were to suffer a minor inconvenience or act out of turn, give yourself a dose of soma, and poof — you’re all good. While the drug helps stabilize any emotional turbulence and keeps a peaceful, carefree society, it also makes you numb to life’s nuanced beauty and the drudgery of a worker bee existence. New London works under a caste system. Everyone has their place, and everyone is happy in it. If they’re not, that’s what the soma is for. After all, there’s no obvious reason to be unhappy: Nights are for parties, dancing, and orgies. Days are for working in whatever job is assigned to you at birth. Such simplicity makes for seamless, gleaming utopia, so long as you don’t think too hard or feel too much.
The city-state only has three laws: No privacy, no family, and no monogamy. “No privacy” comes courtesy of a removable eye implant that looks like a contact lens crossed with a jelly fish; let the squirmy tentacles attach to your retina, the cap cover your eye, and soon you’ll be connected to a live, local intranet, fittingly called Intra. Not only can New Londoners see little floating bubbles that denote an individual’s class, but they can see through another person’s eyes whenever they choose. This leads into the other two rules, as plenty of people use Intra to watch people have sex. Don’t worry: It’s not an invasion of privacy because there is no privacy. (Law No. 1!) People are encouraged to share everything and everyone, while spending too much time alone, off the intranet, means you’re not happy. Even having sex with the same person too many times can trigger a meeting with city leaders.
This is how we meet Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), a Beta Plus who’s been seeing an Alpha Plus named Henry for far too long. Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) calls her into his office to recap their 22 sexual escapades via hologram recordings, and, once he encourages her to make things right by finding a new lover that night, Bernard marvels at an expression on Lenina’s face that he can’t quite pinpoint.
It’s love. Obviously. But there is no such emotion here in New London. For that, you have to go to the Savage Lands, an amusement park on the other side of the ocean where well-off New Londoners can marvel at how the world works outside their walled-off utopia. Locals stage productions of “typical” Western customs like monogamy (a wedding ceremony), health care (a dirty hospital), and consumerism. (“The Annual Day of Black” is shown during a safari-like bus ride, and New Londoners watch as savages reenact the mad dash for Black Friday deals.) It’s one of the show’s more blunt black comic bits, and an ideal way to introduce the
American, er, Savage, John (Alden Ehrenreich).
Steve Schofield / Peacock
John is a prop boy for the productions. In his spare time, he pines for a woman who’s only using him and listens to music with lyrics in them (which isn’t made anymore, as they’re too “distracting”). As John crosses paths with Lenina and Bernard during their vacation to the Savage Lands, he’s exposed to a (bum bum bum!) brave new world, and must choose between a free, complex existence and a simpler way of life that isn’t, on a human level, real.
Huxley’s nearly century-old concerns over unchecked, easily fulfilled desire tarnishing society’s curiosity, ambition, and continuing progress may feel distant, even inapplicable right now, when any creature comfort can function as a life-preserver. But until the wheel of relevancy spins back in its favor, Peacock’s “Brave New World” will still keep you afloat — it’s an absorbing distraction made all the more compelling by detailed world-building. The first three episodes function as a feature-length introduction, establishing everyone and everything needed to immerse yourself in the story, while Findlay and Lloyd, in particular, craft compelling central characters.
Lenina, being part of the upper but not highest class, is in touch with just enough of her instinctual humanity to see more than John’s savage side. But she’s not free from her own privilege, even if Bernard is fixated on preserving his own. Lloyd, especially early on, is given a difficult juggling act in terms of what makes Bernard tick: Is he bored with the good life? Does he fear anything else? Has he been too often rewarded for playing by the rules to ever truly break them? By the end of the nine episodes, it’s a tad frustrating to see his internal conflict ironed out, but Lenina becomes an even more intriguing wrinkle. Both actors carry moments of intense drama and outlandish comedy with an arresting fluidity, which helps make the whole first season go down smooth.
“Brave New World” may not make Peacock a must-see streamer (or a streamer you “can’t not watch,” to play off the old NBC slogan). The plot devolves slightly as it builds to an overcomplicated finale, and Ehrenreich is a bit of a blank spot, rightfully refusing to carry John with a pure protagonist’s swagger, but without finding the charisma we know he’s got during key scenes. Still, Season 1 is an emotionally intelligent thriller, and it looks damn good to boot. (VFX, sets, and costumes are all meticulous, and the directors, especially Owen Harris and Andrij Parekh, capture everything well.) With fresh plotting, an expanded focus, and after updating a few outdated themes, this “Brave New World” is very different from the book. But when you’re trying to make a new thing out of an old thing, that can be OK — at least people won’t be turned off.
“Brave New World” Season 1 premieres all nine episodes Wednesday, July 15 on Peacock.