Consciousness is, at best, a mixed blessing. Sure, it’s what defines humanity—what allows us to make choices, feel emotions, form societies, create art, understand the world around us. But it also opens us up to authoritarianism, inequality, war, genocide, systematic destruction of the environment. It’s what makes us dream of utopia and—because any perfect society would still require drudge work no self-actualized individual would be satisfied doing—what keeps that idyll out of reach.
The futuristic World State of Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, which is coming to TV via NBC Universal’s new streaming service Peacock after years in development limbo, believes it has solved that paradox. Here, each person is genetically engineered to be an ideal member of a certain caste: Alphas are the beautiful, brilliant ruling class. Epsilons are the simpleminded manual laborers. The rest fall somewhere in between. Each rank performs a crucial function, has its material needs met and is conditioned to prefer their lot in life over any other. Family and monogamy are illegal. Pregnancy is obsolete. And to control for the X-factor of brain chemistry, there’s soma, a drug whose mood-altering powers (depending on the dosage) resemble Xanax or Ecstasy. The World State has, in effect, hacked consciousness to eliminate dissatisfaction.
Showrunner David Wiener (Homecoming) keeps the foundation of Huxley’s world intact, and populates it with mostly the same characters. Entangled in a sexual relationship that has become exclusive, Beta-Plus hatchery worker Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey) is sent to Alpha-Plus counselor Bernard Marx (Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd) for a scolding. After an initial encounter in which he humiliates her with a holographic replay of her monogamous trysts (Brave New World has as much weird sex as anything on premium cable), they form a bond based on mutual stirrings of discontent.
Far from the grand, rose-tinted vistas of Lenina and Bernard’s home city New London, a young man named John (Solo star Alden Ehrenreich) lives with his mother (Demi Moore, nice to see but underutilized) in a wasteland populated by so-called Savages, where religion, poverty and family persist. In the novel, this place is a sort of American reservation. Peacock’s version combines it with a theme park where World State tourists come to learn how lucky they are. Inhabitants play redneck caricatures of themselves in reenactments of, in one case, Black Friday at a big-box store. But a faction of militant Savages is rising up against this minstrelsy. Brave New World meets Westworld—until the story abruptly shifts back to New London.
The series looks gorgeous, and expensive, even if its sci-fi brutalist aesthetic is a bit generic. The performances are solid, too; Ehrenreich, in particular, imbues his character with brooding charm. Episodes are fast-paced and pulpy. Yet something is missing from the show’s core. Television thrives on rich characters, but, in large part because it’s set in a realm devoid of eccentricity, I struggled to get invested in this bunch. The rare burst of anger or passion does not a complete person make.
This wasn’t such a problem for Huxley because his Brave New World is a philosophical novel, where characters serve primarily as vehicles for criticism of ideas that captivated the cultural conversation when it was published, in 1932—from the efficiency gospel of Henry Ford to Soviet Communism. What’s strange is how tame what the author called a “negative utopia” sounds today. While a few aspects resonate as hauntingly prescient (the prevalence of psychiatric drugs, technology that enables constant connection at the cost of privacy), it’s a sad quirk of 2020 that it’s become harder to argue against a society free of indigence, violence, cults of personality and, poignantly, disease. The show barely tries to make such a case, muddling its message by making New London kind of a fun place to be and failing to explore in any depth the horrors of a culture that manufactures mundane contentment so effectively as to provide neither inspiration nor need for art.
As chilling as he found the World State to be, Huxley (whose racist characterizations Peacock avoids by implying a Handmaid’s Tale-style post-racial future while casting mostly white leads) didn’t romanticize the Savages, either. In a foreword written after World War II, he described both societies as manifestations of insanity and expressed regret that he hadn’t achieved “philosophical completeness” by fleshing out an alternate, sane society where citizens work to discern the true purpose of human life. He would revisit this idea in his 1962 novel Island. Considering how inert Brave New World feels as serialized TV—and how desperately our culture thirsts for genuine utopian thinking—I wish we’d gotten that show instead.