• Entertainment
  • Television

Moonhaven Is the Smart, If Slightly Silly, Sci-Fi Thriller You’ve Been Waiting For

6 minute read

Why would a person ever willingly leave utopia? For the citizens of Moonhaven, a verdant, peaceful community nestled in 500 square miles of the moon, the answer is: in order to save the world. The year is 2201. Earth has been ravaged by climate change, war, and a cascade of related plagues. Now, the only hope for humanity lies with the so-called Mooners, who’ve spent more than a century building a kinder, more sustainable society. AMC+ sci-fi thriller Moonhaven, premiering July 7, opens just two weeks before a crucial event known as the Bridge, in which the first wave of Mooners will relocate to Earth to help their terrestrial brethren heal the planet.

It’s at this moment that the lunar utopia starts to look less perfect. First, a young woman, Chill (Nina Barker-Francis), is murdered. Then, two hilariously ill-prepared Moonhaven detectives, Paul (Dominic Monaghan, a.k.a. Charlie from Lost) and Arlo (Kadeem Hardison, a.k.a. A Different World’s unforgettable Dwayne Wayne), discover a strange connection between Chill and a pilot, Bella Sway (a taciturn Emma McDonald), who has just arrived from Earth with the powerful envoy Indira (Amara Karan from The Night Of) and Indira’s bodyguard Tomm (True Blood’s Joe Manganiello, playing a sentient snarl) to aid in final preparations for the Bridge. As an Earther with a violent past and a sideline in smuggling, Bella arouses the suspicion of the colony’s leaders—including Maite (Ayelet Zurer of Losing Alice), a council chair with big mother-goddess energy who is beloved by her people. Yet in Moonhaven, a philosophical near-future epic whose ambitious ideas compensate for sometimes-flimsy execution, characters tend to be more complicated than they seem.

All of these personalities provide ample research fodder for the show’s all-seeing, yet unseen, main character: Io. Lurking beneath the moon’s surface and described in a commercial by its parent company Icon as “humanity’s self-teaching artificial intelligence,” Io inspires an almost spiritual reverence on the part of the Mooners. With its sketchily explicated guidance, and after a few tragic false starts, they have constructed a society whose founding principle is interdependence. Couples raise other people’s offspring; children only encounter their biological parents at their own birth and immediately before the parent’s death. By obscuring bloodlines and forming unrelated families, Moonhaven incentivizes its citizens to value the collective.

Daily life in this utopia can feel generic by sci-fi standards, which is understandable in the absence of a Foundation-sized budget but also a bit of disappointment coming from creator Peter Ocko, an alum of AMC’s exhilaratingly odd, prematurely canceled Lodge 49. The glimpses we get of the culture in Moonhaven’s six-episode first season suggest a familiar fusion of the Western canon (spot the literary references), Eastern spirituality (minus all deity worship), and techno-optimism. Because this is an earnest show set within an extremely earnest society, the dialogue can get precious. There is a lot of singing, dancing, and frolicking in bucolic bliss. Mooner fashion splits the difference between Comme des Garcons and ashram chic. Everyone seems thoroughly invested in the mission to save those unfortunate souls left on Earth. “They are us. We are them,” goes one of the colony’s most frequently repeated maxims.

- Moonhaven _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Szymon Lazewski/AMC
Emma McDonald in 'Moonhaven'Szymon Lazewski/AMC

Yet there’s reason to fear that the Bridge will fail. Not everyone on Earth welcomes the arrival of lunar elites. Nor are the naive youth of Moonhaven necessarily prepared for the horrors they’re sure to encounter hundreds of thousands of miles from home. Earth forges people like Bella: survivors who can throw a punch, land a kick, and sense when a person’s motives are less than pure. Although Chill’s killer is easily apprehended in a world monitored by an omniscient AI, Bella’s skills make her instrumental in the ongoing investigation by Paul and Arlo, whose goofy Sherlock-and-Watson schtick seems unlikely to detangle the knotty politics behind the murder.

It’s this psychologically rich story line, which takes a few episodes to develop but dominates the back half of the season, that makes Moonhaven more thought-provoking and exciting to watch than some of its staggeringly expensive predecessors, from Westworld to Stranger Things. One compelling question is whether the lunar community has actually refined human nature to eliminate destructive traits like selfishness, or if the ease and abundance of life on the moon is simply holding those flaws in abeyance. How might Mooners navigate the harsh, kill-or-be-killed conditions on Earth? Will they compromise their collectivist values? Can Earthers really trust a privileged minority to sacrifice its security to help billions of strangers survive? Or is one character right to insist that “the strong take what they want and leave the rest to suffer”?

Read More: The 50 Most Anticipated TV Shows of 2022

These are the kinds of inquiries that good science fiction makes. And despite some tin-eared dialogue, Moonhaven poses them subtly—a particular relief at a time when genre fiction more often screams its political allegories from computer-generated mountaintops. It doesn’t gloat over the colony’s multiracial families or overwhelmingly female leadership; if anything, it plays with the assumptions viewers might make about matriarchy. It doesn’t linger over a nonbinary character’s pronouns or explain the complete normalization of same-gender relationships. The result is a rare story with no use for identity politics. In a society that ignores external markers of difference, everyone is both an individual and an equal member of the group. That’s refreshing.

And it’s refreshing that Moonhaven, for all its minor flaws, trusts viewers to make our own connections between the lunar colony, what little we get to see of 23rd-century Earth, and the various geopolitical cataclysms of today. Of course the conflicts it sets up around power and privilege are relevant. But the resolutions aren’t simple; in a first season that’s almost prefatory, apparently easy answers often lead to new, more complicated questions. Why would a person willingly leave utopia? Before you ask, make sure you understand what utopia really means.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com