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Brave New World has nothing to prove

At a time where you can show just about anything on TV, Brave New World, the biggest new drama premiering on the brand-new Peacock streaming service, still manages to surprise. It’s all the orgies — the show just has so many of them. The volume and length of the orgy scenes in Brave New World is completely unexpected for any show — let alone one based on a novel from 1932, before they invented sex — but Brave New World, like Aldous Huxley’s novel, is set in a world where absolutely everything is chill, as long as you keep popping pills. You might need a few for yourself if you’re going to make it to the end.

First, the biggest problem: you’ve seen all this before. Brave New World is one of the foundational texts of dystopian sci-fi, and as such has been echoed in homage countless times. Its minimal vision of the future where much of our social ills are solved at the cost of free will and expression is stale on arrival. The ways Brave New World gives this familiar vision texture — in lavish set design, interesting costumes, and yes, the orgies — is paper-thin and good for grabbing your attention but not holding it.

Brave New World is largely set in New London, a city where everyone is happy all the time. That they’re only happy because everyone is genetically bred into a strict caste system and drugged out of their minds is beside the point. They’re trained and conditioned to take a drug called soma to keep their “levels” steady, and everyone seems mostly chill with it, clicking their pen-like dispensers at regular intervals as they interact with each other.

Like any dystopia, there is rot here, small cracks that are beginning to grow into fissures and bring about tectonic shifts. The first is Lenina Crowne (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is in a sexual relationship that’s threatening to turn monogamous. That’s verboten in New London — monogamy is a selfish act that deprives the citizenry of your body (all sex in New London is casual sex, the notion of virginity or saving yourself for one person is scoffed at). Then there’s Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), a middle-management type who makes sure New London is running smoothly. Despite being very down with the New London lifestyle, he doesn’t quite fit in.

Together, the two make a journey to America, which has been reduced to a theme-park-style world where well-heeled New Londoners can see how “Savages” (language lifted right from the book and barely considered in its new context) live. It’s like a zoo, except the animals are carnival-style exaggerations of how poor working-class white people lived. On Lenina and Bernard’s trip, things go awry and the pair return to New London with John (Alden Ehrenreich), who worked at the park and has nowhere else to go.

John’s arrival in New London turns it upside down. He’s the individual personified, the person who is absolutely into everything New London has eschewed: raw emotions, disdain for the soma and the rigid social categories the city abides by, and yes, monogamy if the right person comes along.

Summing up more of the plot feels rote; you know where this is heading. Brave New World is another story of the individual vs. the collective, and the only real surprise is where the show’s sympathies might ultimately lie. There are some things that are unexpected as the show accelerates toward its conclusion, but as most of its characters fall flat, there’s very little reason to get invested in some of the more out-there implications delivered in the series’ back half.

This is the most damning thing about Brave New World. It never makes a terribly compelling argument for why Huxley’s vision of a populace in the thrall of its own optimization is relevant today, long after most of Huxley’s ideas seem to be borne out. It’s a story concerned with the corrupting influence of capitalism, at how its scale and greed would lead us to homogeneity that would not stop at the products we buy but to how we are governed and how we feel. The Peacock show emphasizes sex in a way that seems to muddy its metaphor — it’s both another form of gamified stimuli used to keep people docile and the avenue by which the “social body” is corrupted and lost to individual desire.

Brave New World rings false in the same simple way its novel does now: capitalism just got bigger and more inhumane. Misery is what we’ve optimized and produced at scale. Outrage drives us, and if there is a soma, we probably can’t afford it.

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