Ready for a thought experiment?
Imagine a society that has solved the problems of overpopulation and environmental collapse. Crime is a nonissue, as are homelessness and hunger. Racism? Sexism? Homophobia? Sorted. Science has conquered disease and disability. Everyone has useful work, perfect skin, total emotional equilibrium. Every day is a pleasure. Every night is a party.
Pop quiz: Is this a paradise? Or a prison?
Answer: It’s the social science backdrop for “Brave New World,” the flagship drama from Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. All nine episodes are available on Wednesday. Based on Aldous Huxley’s alarmingly prescient 1932 novel of free love and social control, it’s a dystopia dressed up as a utopia. Or vice versa.
“It seems perfect,” said Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays the geneticist Lenina Crowne. “But the minute you scratch the surface, you start to discover stuff.”
“But yeah, a couple of days there?” she added. “That would be great.”
Prestige television likes its glimpses of the future and those futures usually skew dark: “Westworld,” “Black Mirror,” “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But “Brave New World,” which most viewers will remember — vaguely if at all — from some high school or college syllabus, presents a more ambivalent prospect and particular challenges.
Here’s one: How do you take a nearly 90-year-old novel, a literary crystal ball so dead-on that many of its predictions (chemical birth control, mood stabilizers, genetic engineering) have already come true, and still make it feel like the future?
A collaboration between Universal Content Productions, which acquired the rights to the novel, and Amblin Entertainment, brought on for their world-building chops, “Brave New World” began at Syfy, then moved to USA, before landing at Peacock, shedding story and concept and the occasional writer along the way.
“What often happens when you have big IP, you keep swinging until you get it right,” said Dawn Olmstead, the president of Universal Content Productions.
The showrunner David Wiener (“Homecoming,” “Fear the Walking Dead”) apparently had the solution, situating the social theory within a love triangle. The theory part he explained this way: “Huxley,” he said, “was very afraid of a world in which people would become so sexually stimulated, so pharmacologically numb and so distracted by entertainment and media, that they would fail to look within and beyond themselves in uncomfortable ways.” So the future is now?
As for the love triangle: Lenina, a scientist inclined to zip-up minidresses, lives in New London, a city-state that has eliminated all social ills. Family, privacy and social mobility have been jettisoned, too. When uncomfortable feeling arise, citizens pop soma — think psychoactive Skittles — and drug them away.
Eager for a holiday, Lenina accompanies Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd), an administrator with a thing for turtlenecks, on a pleasure tour of the Savage Lands. A living history park for the upper classes, the Savage Lands offer playlets based on antiquated customs — marriage, consumerism. Did I mention that everyone in New London speaks in clipped British accents while the Savage Lands dialect is strictly American?
When the holiday goes wrong — the Savage Lands has a sedition issue — Bernard and Lenina escape with the help of a sweaty, stubbly John (Alden Ehrenreich) and his raspy, bottle-blond mom (Demi Moore). John returns with them to New London and he, Lenina and Bernard, each of them grasping for greater human connection, form the basic geometry. (No prize for guessing who she chooses, but here’s a hint: His genes still encode body hair.)
To envision New London and the Savage Lands and optical interfaces between (in New London, everyone plugs into the internet via biomorphic contact lenses), the show hired the production designer David Lee (“Watchmen”). “Huxley’s world, I mean, it’s a design opportunity beyond belief,” Lee said.
He and his team wanted to avoid the look of other films and series, though they did reference “Blade Runner” for its scale, he said, and “Gattaca” for its sleek modernism. Mostly, Lee looked to Brutalism — Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília, Carlo Scarpa’s elegant interiors, Soviet monuments that stretch heavenward.
Built of gently curved concrete, which can glow warm or cool depending on the lighting, New London’s buildings look both seductive and unyielding, as though Le Corbusier’s studio had taken on a commission for a high-end spa (in a good way). The visual references for the Savage Lands: trailer parks and decayed Walmarts.
There’s plenty of C.G.I. involved, though less than you might think. The Savage Lands were shot in Dungeness, England. Lee cheerfully described the found location as a “flat, barren wasteland” that needed only set dressing. At Dragon Studios, just outside Cardiff, Wales, construction outgrew the buildings and spilled into the backlot and then into another studio, totaling 38 distinct sets and hundreds of thousands of square feet. Brown Findlay remembered stepping into Dragon Studios for the first time and finding “this great big concrete church almost,” she said.
The costumes, at least a thousand of them, also split the difference between modernism and futurism. Huxley had an obsession with zippers, and the costume designer Susie Coulthard honored it. But she embedded those zippers in vanguard materials, partnering with the Swiss textile innovators Jakob Schlaepfer on fabrics that have an oily or glassine appearance. A few outfits are made of balloon latex.
“I felt so immersed in what I was doing by what I was wearing,” Brown Findlay, a veteran of period shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Harlots” said. “That’s saying something when you’ve worn a lot of huge giant corseted dresses.”
Huxley’s technology needed updates even beyond textiles, mostly because a lot of what he imagined (videoconferencing, television, test-tube babies) has already come to pass. Even his self-driving aircraft are in the works.
The novel’s utopian vision, with its ugly flares of racism and misogyny, also required renovation. “The book’s hugely problematic,” Wiener said. So the show pivoted toward equality, race-bending and gender-flipping several of the supporting characters.
“It turns out there’s nothing about those characters that necessarily needed to be white or male,” Wiener said.
The main characters have undergone some changes, too. Lenina, a cheerful sex bunny in the book, has been granted interiority. Pompous Bernard has softened. In the novel, John is prissy and deeply neurotic, anti-sex and anti-fun.
“It’d be a little like taking Mike Pence to New London,” Wiener quipped. “No one would want to watch that.”
So Ehrenreich’s John has loosened up and muscled up, though he remains extremely emo. Ehrenreich, best known as the titular swashbuckler in “Solo,” prefers to describe John as romantic.
“The only thing he has to hold onto in is his ardent belief in a deep, emotional love,” he said.
If the novel traffics mostly in satire, the tone here is more ambivalent. It gets to have its promiscuity — what is prestige TV, after all, without the occasional orgy? — and moralize about it, too.
Maybe you will share that ambivalence. After all, a society organized around pleasure — consequence-free sex, party drugs, renewable fashion — doesn’t sound terrible. “There were definitely moments on set where we were like, this is pretty good,” Ehrenreich said.
But possibly that’s just the prop soma talking. One of the novel’s spikier and more resonant points is that entertainment is its own drug, numbing us against discomfort. “That’s something that we definitely recognize today,” Lloyd, who plays Bernard, said. “The moment where you sit on your own in the darkness to question what it’s all about, there’s so many things to do on your phone.”
“Brave New World” — available soon on the Peacock app! — is one more of them. Yes, it traffics in philosophy and muses upon “the relationship between happiness and freedom, and what you’re willing to risk of each for the other,” Lloyd said.
But as Olmstead, the Universal Content president, told me — twice — the show shouldn’t feel like homework. How much thinking will you do while you watch the buildings, the clothes, the toned bodies, the glowing skin? How well do sex and social critique actually mix? Well enough for more seasons, Wiener hopes.
Huxley didn’t foresee this exact moment. (Very few of us had both a global pandemic and an overdue racial reckoning on our 2020 bingo card.) But the idea of a computer in every pocket, a social media feed for every mood, entertainment on demand and life as livestream wouldn’t have surprised him.
Perhaps he can even imagine us now, pulling up Peacock, clicking on one “Brave New World” episode and then another. Bingeing while the world burns.