American Rednecks vs. English Twerps in Brave New World

Joseph Morgan and Alden Ehrenreich in Brave New World. (Peacock)
Aldous Huxley’s utopian/dystopian classic strikes a surprisingly right-wing stance

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE N on-stop drug-taking, dance-party orgies, and unquestioning deference to authority have always worked for me, but what if they were mandatory? Brave New World’s vision of a chemically smoothed future society stripped of real feelings, intimacy, and (consequently) of genuine happiness continues to resound as loudly as ever, so it’s a good time to take another crack at filming it.

Brave New World, an hour-long series whose first nine episodes just debuted on Peacock, the new streaming service from NBC Universal, is temperamentally so right-wing that I wish it were better. As it is, the series (created by David Wiener, whose last show was Homecoming) is merely tolerable, hampered by a lead-you-around-by-the-nose quality that is more in keeping with the network-TV ethos than with top-shelf cable drama. The writing is mostly superficial, albeit with some clever satiric touches. The characters are flat.

Still, the setup is rich with possibility. The author of the 1932 novel, Aldous Huxley, was a curious chap, an Englishman who borrowed themes and a title from The Tempest and filtered them through what he perceived to be the most disturbing tech advances of 1920s America, particularly mass production and Hollywood talkies. Huxley, who found that the U.S. was where “all the resources of science are applied in order that imbecility may flourish and vulgarity cover the whole earth,” wrote a dystopian satire taking American culture to a logical endpoint – and then moved to California five years later and spent the rest of his life in America. The way disgust and envy commingled in Huxley’s American vision will be familiar to any American who has ever been to England and observed how loudly the captives of that soggy island proclaim America’s faults before meekly admitting, five drinks later, that they’d love to move here.

Brave New World takes place centuries in the future, when the world has united under one government and the swells live in cool, serene, bored London, now called New London. It’s a sanitized-for-your-protection Tomorrowland full of whizzing transportation options, digital gimcrackery, and limitless sex and drugs. Babies are grown in pods, monogamy is forbidden, everyone is programmed to be a happy member of an assigned caste before birth (managerial Alphas through Epsilon worker bees), and the fear of death has been extinguished from the human mind. Even these exquisitely calibrated humans find their life sterile, so they pop lots of soma pills to balance their moods and, for thrills, take rocket rides to “Savageland,” the last corner of earth that didn’t sign up for the new world order and is now preserved as a theme park where the attractions are stage shows based on garbled histories of 20th-century American habits like shotgun weddings and “the day of Black” — Black Friday at the superstore.

Savageland is a hot, seething, trashtopia in the Southwest U.S. where dissipated New Worlders Lenina Crowne (Jessica Findlay Brown) and Bernard Marx (Harry Lloyd) join other decadent looky-loos to gawp at the habits of the “savages,” red-blooded red-state Americans such as John (erstwhile Han Solo Alden Ehrenreich), who depend on the rich New Worlders for the tourist dollars but chafe at being treated as zoo animals. What makes the show right-wing is that its heart is with the organic, earthy savages, who seek to rise up and give a good pounding to the effete bisexual Eurosnobs in designer stupidwear who have names like “Bernard.”

The show is basically a clash between a snobby, socially stratified Downton Abbey of the future and the cast of a Ford F-150 commercial. On the one side are emotionless twerps who wear stupid beige-gray double-breasted suits over stupid gray-beige turtlenecks as they gobble soma like Tic-Tacs. (The clicking of their dispensers to indicate unease is a running gag). On the other hand are the future equivalents of hard-working, sweaty ’Muricans who know how to fix things, have healthy honest feelings, and preserve traditions such as privacy and monogamy. They drink moonshine, which they helpfully describe to the tourists as “liquid soma,” they dress as God intended (in honest American white T-shirts and wifebeaters), and when they get gawked at by prissy English dorks who can’t even drive a car, they want to kill every one of them. Who wouldn’t? A redneck revolution against futuristic emotionless globalist bots sounds like fun. It’s a tech-reversed Westworld.

In the early episodes, though, the revolution has to wait so that John the Savage can be brought back to New London as a sort of living museum exhibit. The show turns into a series of fish-out-of-water set pieces as John’s wild ideas start to catch on among the condescending New Londoners. It’s amusing when John the Savage discovers that you can tell the self-described sophisticates of New London virtually any lurid tale about American mayhem, and they’ll eat it up like toddlers at storytime. “Tell us of your savage violence,” the New Worlders say, exactly like today’s Europeans.

Still, the show lacks much in the way of narrative urgency; there aren’t any particularly compelling questions; nor is the atmosphere sinister enough. The lurking mastermind, world controller Mustafa Mond, is in this instance played by a black woman, Nina Sosanya, whose performance offers neither scares nor charisma. Brave New World really isn’t; brave might have meant, for instance, having each social caste be represented by a different race. Wouldn’t that have gotten some undies in a wad, to cast blacks as the Alphas and white trash as the Epsilons. Or the reverse! Throw Jews, Asians, and Latinos in the mix to play the other three castes and the show might have raised some hackles. As it is, it’s being greeted with shrugs.

Hollywood is a place where rich white people rely totally on brown people to serve their meals, park their cars, clean their homes, fix their cars, and raise their children, so naturally they’re blind to racial castes, even when they’re making a show about the pecking order. Also this is a drama that thinks it’s edgy because it offers amazing amounts of gratuitous nudity but somehow the lead actress manages to have sex only while fully clothed. The extras — the lowest-paid people on the set — are the only ones who have to actually strip off. How’s that for being an Epsilon in the year 2020 — you don’t just have to swab the decks for the Alphas, you have to have a hot body and show it off on command. An honest documentary about the making of Brave New World might be grabbier than the show itself.

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