In the new TV adaptation of Brave New World, Alden Ehrenreich plays John the Savage, a stranger to the future society of New London, who is constantly puzzled by the city’s decadence as well as its rigid caste system. At one point, John arrives at a fancy party where the guests are preparing for what they claim is an exciting new game that involves lots of technology and vibrant outfits. As the rules are explained to him, John quickly realizes that it’s just a high-tech version of hide-and-seek. When he asks what the special suits do, his host replies, “The suits? They look fabulous!”
Welcome to this not-so Brave New World, where all the ideas feel old and not nearly as deeply considered as the creators think. But, hey, at least it all looks fabulous.
In addition to Ehenreich, this latest version of Aldous Huxley’s middle school English-class staple stars, among others, Jessica Brown Findlay from Downton Abbey, as pleasure-seeking Lenina Crowne, Harry Lloyd from Counterpart, as administrator Bernard Marx, Kylie Bunbury from Pitch, as Lenina’s friend Frannie, Joseph Morgan from The Vampire Diaries, as menial laborer Cjack 60, and Demi Moore, as John’s alcoholic mother, Linda. It’s a great-looking cast, and a great-looking show. New London is a gleaming and wholly plausible paradise for people like Lenina and Bernard, as well as an obvious dystopia for anyone unlucky enough to be born at Cjack 60’s rank. The scenery is gorgeous, the digital FX casually real, so that when Lenina enjoys the wonder of zero gravity on an orbital flight with Bernard, it makes sense both that she’d be giddy and that the other passengers would be utterly jaded to it.
But this adaptation, developed by Grant Morrison, Brian Taylor, and David Wiener, never digs below those polished surfaces, either in exploring the characters or the story’s themes.
We are told at the beginning that New London has three rules to keep everyone happy: No privacy. No family. No monogamy. It quickly becomes clear that the last dictate is the TV show’s primary area of interest. If Westworld hadn’t already ground every last ounce of titillation out of the concept of filmed orgies, Brave New World will in short order. New London is a place where the citizenry are kept docile through abundant drugs, sex, and other distractions. While Huxley was writing about his own time in the 1930s, there are clear parallels to our world, and this adaptation occasionally takes a break from the flash and flesh to point them out. “The Savage Lands,” where John has grown up, have been reimagined from a Native American-styled wilderness preserve into a theme park chronicling the excesses of early 21st-century America: In one scene, Lenina marvels at a re-creation of a big-box store opening on Black Friday. Mostly, though, the show treats the book’s big questions as excuses for spectacles of sex and violence. There’s an impressive action sequence in the second episode, presented largely as a single take, when Bernard and Lenina’s Savage Lands trip goes horribly awry, but it also feels besides the point of the whole thing.
The problem is that the series has so little interest in exploring what went into the creation of a place like New London, and what motivates the people who live there. There are brief glimpses of the community’s superficial entertainment options — video programs with names like The Moist Boys and Face Punch — but Brave New World itself doesn’t feel significantly deeper. In the book, John has grown up quoting the complete works of Shakespeare; here, he trudges around in a black trench coat saying things like, “You pop that smug little twat in his grille, you’re gonna feel fuckin’ great!” There’s also the problem that the version of the character we meet in the Savage Lands feels wholly different from the one who causes such a stir when he arrives in New London midway through the season. But the intense boredom he feels after a few days of experiencing all of New London’s bacchanal pleasures will feel familiar to anyone who decides to sit through all nine of the show’s chapters.
At one point, Bernard listens to John’s digital-music player, and is stunned to hear Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” because he’s accustomed to songs not having lyrics. John suggests musicians in the olden days wanted their music to mean something, but Bernard just finds the words distracting. The Brave New World creative team seems to be on Bernard’s side of this debate, not wanting deep thoughts to get in the way of their pretty pictures.
Brave New World was originally developed at Syfy, then shifted to USA, and has ended up as one of the initial originals for the launch of NBCUniversal’s new ad-supported, partially-free/partially-not hodgepodge of a streaming service, Peacock (about which you can find more details here). Though Peacock has a fairly impressive library of old shows and movies, originals are few and far between at this stage, with some of its higher-profile series either disrupted by the pandemic or still very early in development. In addition to Brave New World, Peacock launches with another Psych reunion movie, plus a pair of British shows: the police procedural The Capture and Intelligence, an Office-esque comedy that asks the question, “How long will you tolerate watching David Schwimmer play an unrelenting asshole?” (My answer: The length of one episode, and barely that.) Brave New World is arguably the closest thing the launch has to a marquee attraction, and it definitely has the shine of one. But, like John the Savage turning away from New London’s social elite to listen to his ancient MP3s, odds are you’ll soon lose interest in what’s shiny and new on Peacock in favor of firing up the complete run of Columbo.
All nine episodes of Brave New World premiere July 15th on Peacock. I’ve seen the whole thing.