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Peacock's Brave New World never quite emerges from the shadow of Aldous Huxley's novel, despite its superb cast

  • "This Brave New World borrows from the novel’s explorations, or rather, critiques, of automation (though no one invokes Henry Ford) and conformity," says Danette Chavez. "But (showrunner David) Wiener’s vision, and that of his fellow executive producer Grant Morrison, who also serves as a writer, is more action-packed than philosophical. Though still an outsider, their John is more rough and tumble than the man with Victorian sensibilities from the book. And while he rails against the surveillance state—represented here by an ocular implant that lets you see everyone’s status, a concept similar to that of Black Mirror’s 'Nosedive'—John eventually warms to his ever-present audience, regaling them with fictional tales from the Savage Lands. It’s a significant departure from the uptight outcast of Huxley’s imagination: Once he’s settled in New London, Ehrenreich brings a little Han Solo swagger to John, but early on, he moons over girls and eschews careerism while listening to music like a 26th-century Lloyd Dobler. Gone is Shakespeare; John’s bard is now alternately Lou Reed, Nick Cave, or Thom Yorke."


    • Dull, generic and padded, Brave New World transmutes a provocative warning into a vision of a sci-fi world that feels neither brave nor new: "There are a few, welcome flashes of life," says James Poniewozik. "(Harry) Lloyd gives Bernard a pitiable desperation as he comes to find his accustomed life more and more empty. ('Everybody’s happy unless they choose not to be!' he tells himself, crankily popping a soma.) And by late in the season, the series starts to loosen up and have dark-humored fun with its premise. But it’s not enough to be worth the wait. For the most part, we’re left with an unsexy portrait of decadence, a thriller without thrills, a prescription that’s less soma than Sominex."
    • Brave New World injects a little fun into Prestige TV: "Brave New World is definitely a new thing that Peacock’s masterminds are hoping is the next big thing," says Ben Travers. "But even if it’s not, they know it’s still a new thing (even though it’s based on an old thing), and as long as it’s not boring, people will keep watching, and if people keep watching, they’ll keep using Peacock, and the world will go round and round without anyone questioning the nature of this self-perpetuating hype cycle. To be perfectly honest, Brave New World had its hooks in me before it went meta, but backing up the convictions inherent to its dark social satire with the choice to criticize its own part in the process certainly amped up my appreciation of this slick, beautiful production. Altering the source material to better suit modern parallels while featuring a handful of excellent performances, showrunner David Wiener’s adaptation isn’t too serious to have a little fun, nor is it blind to the commonalities between a drug that renders you emotionally neutral and an era of nonstop TV that keeps viewers sedate, happy, and largely braindead.
    • Brave New World has pretty packaging but a hollow center: "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," says Alan Sepinwall, adding: "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."
    • Brave New World owes more to Westworld than to Aldous Huxley: "The series looks gorgeous, and expensive, even if its sci-fi brutalist aesthetic is a bit generic," says Judy Berman. "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."
    • Some may perceive Brave New World as a failure for the same reason that it’s eminently watchable: "Its 'dystopia,' overflowing with hot sex, party drugs, and designer clothes, never quite realizes its weak spot with enough precision to make anything feel truly sinister," says Valerie Ettenhofer. "Episode after episode, the version of society — checked out, controlled, and discreetly unequal — that Huxley expressly condemned mostly just ends up looking like a lot of fun. The series sidesteps several tired dystopian cliches by doing away with a focused moral or villain, but when it finally does dig into the dark underbelly of New London, nearly six episodes in, it also loses some of its creative stamina."
    • Brave New World is fine if you accept it as a cross between Burning Man and a mass orgy set in an Apple store: "Brave New World, the flagship original series launching with Peacock, is only as good as a person can rightly expect of a series that was supposed to debut on Syfy before flying over NBC Universal's newly launched, sort of free streaming service," says Melanie McFarland. "Asking it to live up to the legend of its source, that high school reading syllabus staple authored by Aldous Huxley, isn't quite fair. Neither is hammering on how poorly it may compare to the better rendered versions of technological dystopias seen in, say, Netflix's Black Mirror, an anthology series often referred to as the bar-setter for all contemporary glimpses into humanity's downfall. But even that benefits from shifting from one view to another hour by hour, and varies wildly quality. This is not Netflix, or premium cable offering HBO. It is decidedly TV, and as long as a person dives into a show that largely looks like a cross between Burning Man and a mass orgy set in an Apple store, you just might enjoy the distraction."
    • The absurd amount of sex, over-the-top costumes, bursts of goofy humor, and soapy plots keep Brave New World from really feeling like prestige television: "But that lighter approach works well with the show’s setting, which replaces the relentless brutality and monstrous villains of most dystopian stories with oppressive pleasantness," says Samantha Nelson. "Brave New World offers a relatively breezy way to examine timeless issues of class consciousness and escapism, just relevant enough to not feel like the meaningless amusements it preaches against. That’s a good thing, because when the real world is this grim, it’s hard to turn off the TV and be alone with your thoughts."
    • Too much of Brave New World is the writers delighting in shocking the audience with how strange New London's customs are: "No one has ever cried before or knows what 'a virginity' is," says Inkoo Kang. "Bernard's superior (Sen Mitsuji) gives him a performance review while the employee is on the toilet. Everyone is young and hot, and when they reach a certain age, they're sent to the crematorium — not that the show dares to consider the darkness of that premise. That's the thing about New London — its practices are so extreme, their ramifications so unexplored and thus their resonance to our world so limited that anyone who lives there is too outlandish to care about. The few times they do approach humanity, it simply feels like a narrative contrivance."
    • NBC clearly poured a lot of money into this series, and it shows in the stunning production values: Brave New World created an entire 3D CGI city with the help of an architect. "Admittedly, there are some big visual effects, but we tried to make sure they didn't overwhelm the narrative," says VFX supervisor Tom Horton. "The constant mantra was that the visual effects had to be incidental, the better to reveal all of the great conflict arising from these really intimate relationships."
    • Harry Lloyd explains the benefits of his memorable five-episode Game of Thrones stint: “I had my go,” he says of playing Viserys Targaryen. “I got in early and I got out early. And he didn’t look like me, which, number one, is good because he is a little shit. And so I was happy to not have people throwing stuff at me in the streets. But number two, and I didn’t notice at the time, but it has since become the biggest show on TV. It doesn’t make me worry about being typecast so much.”
    • Did Kylie Bunbury read Huxley's novel beforehand?: "If it’s a well-known source, I typically do read the book that it comes from or wherever it originated from," she says. "However, with this, I did know that it was going to be quite a departure from the book, especially in terms of my character, so I just kind of did the SparkNotes thing. I hate admitting that, but I wanted to go into it with a fresher sense. I understood the basics of what the book, what Aldous Huxley wrote, and so I just wanted to go into it fresh and kind of create Frannie in my own way."
    • Alden Ehrenreich on how his character resembles Star Wars' Han Solo: "In the book John has, from Shakespeare, this romantic and large sense of what life should be and that it’s very much about love and feelings and emotional things and depth," he says. "And that looks different in the series — maybe it’s more of an American sense of romanticism — but it’s still the same plight and the same cause, which is this sense that life should be more and people should be giving themselves to feelings. For me that was really exciting, not entirely unlike Solo where you’re the character in the midst of this enormous and incredibly dominant and overbearing system and you have a feeling or a belief that you’re fighting to get across. I’ve always responded to characters like that."
    • Jessica Brown Findlay "completely fell in love" with the Brave New World script: "When I started reading the script and it had that energy, I was just really taken with how unusual that was, how bold it was and how exciting it would be to make something that sort of takes a novel, making the world and runs with it," says Findlay. "I completely fell in love with it. The writing was brilliant. It made me laugh out loud. I just adored it."
    • Brave New World has the most immaculately art-directed orgy sequence on TV: Writer David Wiener and production designer David Lee describe to  Vanity Fair the filming of their orgy scene, which was made with the help of Normal People intimacy coordinator Ita O'Brien. “As the audience, you’re watching this incredible orgy. And with the music, you’ve got these kinds of organic sexual shapes moving in background,” said Lee, who had to hide about 20 projectors in the dance floor to achieve this dazzling debauch. The dome itself—and other New London architecture—was partially inspired by Oscar Niemeyer’s civic buildings for Brasília. Wiener urged the creative team to dismiss futuristic aesthetic ideas that had already been done onscreen, said Lee, “so we kind of dismissed very quickly the idea of this being like a Blade Runner or a Matrix. It was a very exciting period, with us overlooking London as it is now and imagining how it would look 200 years from now if designed by artificial intelligence.”

    TOPICS: Brave New World, Peacock, Alden Ehrenreich, Aldous Huxley, David Lee, David Wiener , Grant Morrison, Harry Lloyd, Jessica Brown Findlay, Kylie Bunbury, Sex