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‘Noughts + Crosses’ Review: Alternate Reality Romance Never Makes the Most of Provocative Premise

Premiering on Peacock, the adaptation of Malorie Blackman's acclaimed novel imagines a Europe colonized by Africa.

"Noughts + Crosses"

“Noughts + Crosses”

Peacock

In the alternate universe of “Noughts + Crosses,” Africa — or “Aprica” as it’s referred to in the new Peacock series — invaded Europe 700 years ago. In present-day London (known as “Albion”), segregation laws maintain the power dynamic: A ruling class of Black “Crosses” control the country over an oppressed, impoverished underclass of white “Noughts,” who are on the brink of revolt. Against this backdrop of Prejudice and rebellion, a prohibited romance blossoms between Callum McGregor (Jack Rowan), a hapless Nought, and Sephy Hadley (Masali Baduza), a Cross, and daughter of a prominent politician. It’s a provocative set up with “Romeo and Juliet”-esque implications that doesn’t quite have the bite it seems to be striving for.

Based on the highly acclaimed 2001 novel by Malorie Blackman, the first in the franchise, the six-part British drama series, which originally aired earlier this spring on the BBC, examines racial privilege and tackles prejudice and ignorance, all within the story of a star-crossed love affair in a world that’s both thematically recognizable and entirely foreign.

A constructive way to highlight a problem is by deconstructing its inverse. In “Noughts + Crosses,” reversing the prejudice allows for a better grasp of the problem — in this case, racism, and the extent to which it has permeated everyday life and stifled the advancement of an entire group of people.

And so at the heart of the series is an inspired idea, an imaginary world that some critics have described as dystopian, without a hint of irony. To call the imagined society in “Noughts + Crosses” dystopian is to then acknowledge, however unintentionally, that the real world is itself dystopian. The only difference is that the people who are relentlessly brutalized by a militarized police force, or who can’t get bandages to match their skin color, are white.

Shot in South Africa, although it’s set in a recognizable England but with an African twist, its story is consistent with the apartheid-era sensibilities of its setting. In its tale of oppression and rebellion, the series evokes the struggles of the African National Congress (ANC) — the South African political party that fought for decades to bring an end to apartheid — and, closer to home, the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In its portrait of everyday microaggressions and privileges, it wants to speak to the here and now, aiming to build a bridge of understanding in a polarized world, even though it doesn’t fully succeed.

Where the series excels is in its production design, presenting a radically different version of London influenced by hundreds of years of African culture. Thanks to architect-turned-filmmaker Kibwe Tavares — an executive producer on the series — the city feels believable and lived-in, while the detail in fashion, hairstyles and architecture help build an aesthetically pleasing world in this reality turned upside down.

The Yoruba language is seamlessly incorporated in day-to-day conversation; some of the Crosses style their hair in the manner of the Noughts, while debating cultural appropriation; and the daily microaggressions that Black people often face in the real world, are woven into the script, highlighting how the degradations that the oppressor scoffs at can accumulate and wear down the oppressed.

These are all easily communicable ideas, enmeshed within a celebration of African culture in its many forms. But while these exceptional elements give the sense that “Noughts + Crosses” is striving for greatness, it doesn’t quite accomplish that. The foundation is potent, and speaks to the “original sin” of slavery, an institution that left an indelible imprint. For Black people, many who languish in societal backwaters — like the Noughts — the struggle for racial justice continues to unfold in real time, in a society that’s increasingly divided, even as a new decade looms.

In this environment, a series like “Noughts + Crosses” should be especially resonant, and searingly relevant in the questions it poses about equality and fairness in the world. But, while it’s at times entertaining to watch, it’s not as profound nor as distressing as it’s likely meant to be.

To be sure, the series’ goal probably is not to solve racism, but to generate conversation about the lingering legacy of slavery. And, in fairness, it’s intended to be a young adult series, although changes have been made to the television adaptation, including casting the star-crossed lovers as older teenagers instead of the pre-teens they are in the book: Callum is the first Nought to attend an elite military school as a result of an inclusion initiative; Sephy is applying to university.

Their romance is ultimately the centerpiece of the series, and while the infantilism of their numerous breakups and labored arguments will likely be familiar to younger audiences, those elements will eventually distance older viewers who are initially attracted to the series’ provocative concept.

It doesn’t help that the series never really makes it apparent where exactly the deep connection in this Romeo and Juliet-style romance stems from. And even though both Callum and Sephy are likable enough, their relationship feels underdeveloped. The perilous circumstances they find themselves in, which much of the series’ various strands depend on, never feel entirely earned.

The extended supporting cast of character actors works its way through overly-plotted threads: the menacing political scheming of Paterson Joseph as Sephy’s father and Albion’s segregationist prime minister Kamal Hedley; Bonnie Mbuli as Kamal’s wife Jasmine, who is engaged in her own extramarital affair; Jonathan Ajayi as the contemptible Lekan, Sephy’s boyfriend and Callum’s rival; Helen Baxendale as the Hedley’s housekeeper (and Callum’s mother) Meggie, the keeper of secrets; Ian Hart as Callum’s proud father, doomed to his own tragic fate; and Callum’s volatile brother Jude (Josh Dylan), who joins the the Liberation Militia, a Nought rebel alliance spearheaded by Jack Dorn (Shaun Dingwall), the violently uncompromising leader of the resistance movement.

To its detriment, “Noughts + Crosses” unnecessarily crams plenty into its six episodes, both visually and narratively. But underneath all the pomp and circumstance, it’s ultimately the story of two families separated by power and prejudice but forever entwined by fate.

There is no denying the quality of its strengths, yet neither its central prohibited love story nor its social commentary are able to fully complement those assets. It remains to be seen whether premiering the series against the backdrop of an America that’s still contending with a racial reckoning will make way for more nuanced conversations on the issues of race and racism.

The race-reversal idea is initially a draw. But as the magnificence-factor of the world of Albion begins to wither in latter episodes, and salient points have long been made, the vitality of the series weakens as it draws to an expected ambiguous conclusion, paving the way for a very likely second season.

Within the context of television series that set out to hold a mirror up to the problems that ail modern society — “The Handmaid’s Tale” for example — “Noughts + Crosses” should be a far more uncomfortable, necessary watch in uncertain times of peak racial and social unrest. It’s clearly striving for that, but it isn’t as radical as it could be.

Grade: C+

“Noughts + Crosses” originally premiered on the BBC in the UK in March 2020. The series premieres Friday, September 4 on Peacock.

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