To an extent, dystopian science fiction probably wouldn't be what it is today if it wasn't for Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The nearly 90-year-old novel has become a cornerstone for the subgenre, forecasting a technologically advanced but flawed society that has gradually become more and more of a reality. The source material has made way for many admirable, yet outdated adaptations over the years, including three radio dramas, two TV movies, a theatrical stage production, and a failed movie from Ridley Scott, who hinted in 2013 that the story might not necessarily be fit for a modern-day adaptation. The upcoming Brave New World TV series, which debuts on NBCUniversal's Peacock streaming service later this month, not only proves that sentiment wrong, but uses an oddly exhilarating and genuinely cool form of storytelling to help usher the novel into the twenty-first century. The nine-episode first season is nuanced, sleek, and inventive -- and it might be one of the most creative new shows of this summer, if not the entire year.
Brave New World takes place in a world that is centuries ahead of our own, in which New London, a seemingly utopian society, has been built by outlawing things like privacy, monogamy, family, and money. The citizens of New London are split into social castes based on intelligence and labor-related skill, with the Alpha and Beta citizens having control over the "lesser" citizens of the Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon castes. The Alphas and Betas are free to experience the pleasures of their perfect life (and each other) to their hearts' content, with the help of a happiness-inducing drug called "soma." Outside of New London is The Savage Land, an impoverished civilization where outdated structures like marriage, capitalism, and the prison-industrial complex are put on display for traveling guests. When two New London citizens, an Alpha named Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) and a Beta named Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), travel to the Savage Land, their paths cross with John the Savage (Alden Ehrenreich), a young man with unique ties to both societies. All three of them eventually make their way back to New London, setting off a sequence of events that will completely shift the "perfection" of New London as they know it.
If that all seems too confusing to you (or if you weren't paying attention while the book was being taught in your high school English class), Peacock's Brave New World doesn't hold that against you. It builds out its world in an effective way without becoming too overwhelming, while also peppering in updates and changes that will even surprise die-hard fans of the book. In a way, the biggest encapsulation of this is the updating of the Savage Land itself, which (as early promo photos have shown) is portrayed as a sort of trailer-park Disney World as opposed to the amalgam of Native American stereotypes that it is in the book. The choice not only smartly sidesteps one of the novel's most outdated qualities, but it recontextualizes the difference in the quality of life between New London and the Savage Land in a modern, relevant way (one standout sequence towards the middle of the season even comments on the issue of food deserts). That isn't to say that Brave New World hits you over the head with its complex issues, as the series' creative team — which includes comic icon Grant Morrison and Crank and Ghost Rider alum Brian Taylor, who helped develop the series — manages to strike an intriguing balance between poignancy and lunacy. The gonzo energy that Morrison and Taylor previously brought to SYFY's Happy definitely bleeds over to this, while also allowing the series to be surprisingly heartfelt and human. Throughout the season, there's a through-line of the different ways that people in privilege feed off of the pain of those less fortunate than themselves, a sentiment that feels especially relevant in our current climate.
One of the most groundbreaking things about Brave New World at the time of its original publication was its approach to nonmonogamy and sexuality, a detail which this adaptation unabashedly embraces. It's safe to assume that viewers will be surprised by the series’ approach to nudity and sex scenes, both of which are so prevalent that it’s almost impossible to imagine this series on its original homes of either SYFY or the USA Network. While that abundance might make some viewers clutch their pearls, Brave New World uses it in a progressive, consensual, and celebratory context. When juxtaposed against the headline-grabbing assault and rape scenes on other genre shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and Outlander, Brave New World shows that it is possible to celebrate sexuality — while also having a conversation about things like consent, sexual shame, and the construct of virginity. This also feels like the first Brave New World adaptation that is actually able to embrace the novels' queerness, in part thanks to our own society's ever-evolving strides towards LGBTQ+ visibility and advocacy. At one point towards the end of the season, a character flat-out says that "it makes no sense to deny yourself half of the population," an LGBTQ+-positive statement that feels absolutely surreal to hear in an adaptation of a nearly century-old novel.
While Brave New World takes so many admirable and entertaining swings, it's really the ensemble cast that makes it a joy to watch. Brown Findlay and Lloyd are perfectly cast as Lenina and Bernard, honoring the integrity of the characters' source material while also providing so much more nuance. Once Ehrenreich's John officially enters the series, the trio becomes electrifying to watch in essentially any context. Ehrenreich, in particular, turns John into a soulful and mesmerizing leading man, further proving that (even after the online vitriol he initially endured for Solo: A Star Wars Story) he deserves to be in whatever franchise he wants. Hannah John-Kamen's performance as a gender-bent "Helm" Watson, an ally to both Bernard and John, also deserves praise, and feels like a fitting spiritual successor to her dual roles on Killjoys. Other standouts across the first season include Kylie Bunbury as Frannie, Lenina's best friend, and Demi Moore as Linda, John's mother.
Being the first high-profile genre show on a new streaming service is always a tall order, as the technical and aesthetic elements unintentionally set fans' expectations for future original content. With that in mind, Brave New World sets a high bar for Peacock's original content going forward, as its massive scope and scale are illustrated lushly, but effectively. It will definitely draw comparisons to the stellar Black Mirror episode "San Junipero," especially as that episode's director Owen Harris serves as an executive producer on the series. The costumes and fashion are arguably one of the biggest strengths of the series, giving the bland, pastel-hued world of New London an envy-inducing sartorial flair. The series' cinematography and set design also play off of this brilliantly, with certain sequences being bathed in truly striking primary colors. Music also plays a surprisingly significant role in the series — both in the score itself and in the soulful soundtrack, which includes two of the most fun needle drops on TV in recent memory.
Like its source material, Peacock's Brave New World might not resonate with everybody, but it crafts the adaptation that the novel has always deserved. From the cast to the aesthetics to the narrative surprises, the series proves to be cool, nuanced, and unabashedly weird, in a way that all comes together to be an oddly perfect summer TV show. Brave New World is essentially an analysis of compassion — the kind you give to others, and the kind you give to yourself — and how much the constructs of our society can get in the way of that. Amid a global pandemic, conversations about racial inequality, and countless other issues in our current world, that sentiment feels more relevant than ever.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Brave New World will debut on July 15th exclusively on Peacock.