While it has its highlights, Brave New World arrives at precisely the wrong time for new dystopian sci-fi, especially since at this point so little of it is actually new at all.
This review of Brave New World (Peacock) is spoiler-free.
I’m really not sure now is the right time for even more dystopian fiction, which is especially bad news for Peacock’s new original series Brave New World, based on Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel of the same name. Not only have we had a ton of sci-fi dystopias lately, but Huxley’s novel is one of the most popular and enduring ever; most of the stuff you’re sick of was already cribbed from it in the first place. That puts this new 9-episode series in a tricky position – you’ve seen this particular vision of the future in countless rip-offs of itself.
The ideas at the heart of Brave New World, then, feel painfully familiar. The population of New London is largely devoid of social ills because they’re all rigidly class-stratified and strung out on pills and mandated to have casual sex with everyone they can since monogamy is prohibited. As ideal as that might sound to some of us, the benefits come at the overall erosion of free will and self-expression, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.
It’s a tale as old as time, and the attempts to spice it up here are mostly to be found in very lavish production and oddly long, explicit orgies, which at least plays into the idea of sex as a public service. That’s of particular importance to Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), who’s flirting with the idea of monogamy and thus becomes a protagonist. She’s joined by the pencil-pushing Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) and the champion of free will, John (Alden Ehrenreich), who they bring back from among the “Savages” of zoo-like working-class America just so he can get the plot moving. And on and on we go.
The thematic underpinnings of this plot amount to what is, if we’re being fair, quite a paper-thin clash between individual and collective; personal agency versus group prosperity, and the uncomfortable fact that those who get to determine what’s in the best interests of the collective never seem to cede their individual rights when it comes to the supposed betterment of the group. This is all chewed through at quite a clip, and it’s easy to get so lost in how rote the setup is that you miss some of the later, more provocative implications. It’s also all too easy to get hung up on the show’s obsession with sex, a focus that it’s hard to imagine as anything other than a titillating talking point given the sheer amount of it across the season.
None of this is to say that Brave New World doesn’t have some good – even great – ideas, including some that are specific to this version. The show’s lovely looking and pacey and never outright offends, either by contorting the novel’s message or completely missing how relevant it still is, even if it seems reluctant to really hammer home the extent to which we’re in capitalism’s thrall now more than ever. But greater awareness of contemporary context would have made it stronger, livelier, and more separate from a guiding text that became truer than Huxley could have probably imagined.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.