[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Peacock, the streaming service from NBC Universal, makes its debut on July 15th with a line up of series and the long-awaited Psych film, Lassie Come Home (so good to see that crew again!). Episodic series Brave New World has been on our radar since Hannah John-Kamen (Killjoys) was added to the cast list last year.
Set in the idyllic future New London, the perfectly-coifed and twenty- and thirtysomething population exist in an orderly, tiered system of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, and Epsilons who commingle only according to specific mandates, or not at all. The title card sets it up that “Everyone is happy,” which savvy viewers will guess isn’t completely true.
It is a half-truth of sorts–they’re happy because they’re hopped up on Soma, ball-shaped happy pills that residents can self-administer via telltale Pez dispenser-like clicks whenever they feel anything resembling a human emotion. Having a fairly endless supply of sexual partners because monogamy is illegal doesn’t hurt, either, until you look closer and see that all that sex is a slog and perhaps not always consensual.
Since the residents exist as a hive mind of networked souls, they’re sheep who fall in line and do as they’re told. Until they don’t.
In the pilot, we meet Lenina (Downtown Abbey‘s Jessica Brown Findlay) and Bernard (Counterpart‘s Harry Lloyd), two of the upper tier. A “Beta Plus,” Lenina is essentially a genetic engineer, working on a pristine conveyor belt line fertilizing embryos and assigning them their rank and station in utero.
Bernard is an Alpha Plus, assigned to keeping the systemic order. Initially calling Lenina in to check her on stepping out of her lane, the duo find common ground, unwittingly experiencing pangs of humanity that they don’t quiet know how to process.
The counterpoint to New London is the Savage Lands, a theme park vacation destination populated by a pretty rough collection of violent, poor, deeply unhappy inhabitants who opted out of the New London migration and discovered the alternative to that seemingly perfect half-life isn’t much better.
Our touchpoint in the Savage Lands is John (an excellent Alden Ehrenreich) who lives with his mom, Linda (a scary good Demi Moore who was a welcome surprise that I wasn’t expecting) in a ramshackle house just outside the grounds of the theme park. Linda is an alcoholic still clinging to an unnamed loss that’s put John in the parental role.
John’s also in the middle of a love triangle with the mildly interested Madysun (Lara Peake), which may turn out to be a ruse designed to draw him into something larger brewing in the town. The timing is unfortunate for Lenina and Bernard, who book a no-strings getaway to the Savage Lands and get much more than they bargained for, from each other and the park.
Other players in the mix include John-Kamen as Helm, a Lady Gaga-esque entertainer who delivers experiences to her adoring audience and is Bernard’s BFF, and Joseph Morgan (The Originals) as CJack60, one of the robotic Epsilons, who also experiences an awakening.
Sen Mitsuji (Altered Carbon) is Henry, Lenina’s sometime lover and a thorn in Bernard’s side. Nina Sosanya (Killing Eve) plays Mustafa, the mysterious controller, who’s significantly invested in the order of things for reasons that are revealed well into the season. Kylie Bunbury (When They See Us) is Lenina’s BFF, Frannie, who’s terrified of her friend’s transformation.
I’m a bad English lit grad because I legit do not recall reading Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel in college much less high school, so I can’t speak to the adaptability captured here by Homecoming‘s David Wiener. It’s definitely a big bold world, but we’re also fairly conditioned to that in our scripted TV these days. So, there’s nothing groundbreaking about a society existing to satisfy the optics of a superficial glance that doesn’t invite closer scrutiny. YMMV based on your viewing habits beforehand.
That said, it’s gorgeous to look at. The score by Jordan Gagne and Jeff Russo is reminiscent of their music for Altered Carbon, a similarly cautionary tale. I really liked the series, but it does unravel a bit in the final third. Still, I’d definitely come back for a second season for this cast.
There’s also a degree of meta, “No way would they be able to film that now because of the pandemic,” which lends almost a quaint element to the scenes that are packed to the walls with people, clothed and otherwise. And about that–there is A LOT of sex in the series, so plan accordingly if that’s not your jam or you’re thinking of a family binge watch.
I’ve been a fan of Ehrenreich since 2013′ Beautiful Creatures, and he gives a powerful performance here–two, really. Initially, he’s playing a man who wants better for himself and his mom, and really just to be left alone, and later, he’s bewildered and adrift and then alternately sullen and ragey when he conditionally gets exactly that.
Findlay and Lloyd are very good as characters beholden to tow the party line until the veneer starts to crack and they handle the fallout in dramatically different ways. The first season is as much Lenina and Bernard’s story as it is John’s. They both finish the season in a radically different place than they started.
We don’t see a lot of John-Kamen until the halfway point and beyond but she’s worth the wait. Helm is the only one to really see John and tap into him having his emotions run through a blender. And it cracks open something in her that until that point she’d just been playing at.
Brave New World premieres its nine-episode season Wednesday on Peacock. The first few episodes will be available for free, with the remainder available as part of the subscription. The whole season goes live at the same time. Here’s a sneak peek.
[Update: the series was cancelled in October so there won’t be a second season.]
Photos and Videos Courtesy of Peacock.
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