Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel “Brave New World” famously imagined a future society in which people were enslaved to pleasure. The future’s diversions were so absorbing that they commanded attention over everything else.
If only you could say that about its latest TV adaptation. Dull, generic and padded, the series, one of the premiere offerings for NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service on Wednesday, transmutes a provocative warning into a vision of a sci-fi world that feels neither brave nor new.
The premise, as in so many new series based on pre-existing intellectual property, is essentially that of the novel, but stretched out. We arrive in New London, the gleaming citadel of a hedonistic society that has snuffed out discontent with three rules — “No privacy, no family, no monogamy” — and an endless supply of soma, a feel-good drug dispensed like Pez.
The citizens, stratified into castes labeled “Alpha,” “Beta” and so on, shrug off the class inequities with the help of pills, orgies and “feelies,” tactile entertainments in which a populace mostly alienated from physical struggle can experience virtual thrills like getting punched in the face.
Outside the city, “savages” still practice primitive rites like having babies biologically, and perform at theme parks for the amusement of their safariing betters. (“Brave New World” shares with “Westworld” a faith in the future health of the live-amusements industry.)
Bernard (Harry Lloyd), a supercilious Alpha, strikes up a friendship with Lenina (Jessica Brown Findlay), a Beta whom he’s investigated for having sex too often with the same man — a transgression of “solipsism” against the “social body,” in which “everyone belongs to everyone else.” After a getaway to the Savage Lands adventure park goes awry, they return to New London with a fugitive native, John (Alden Ehrenreich), whose defiant authenticity makes him a subject of fascination.
That John will threaten the complacency of New London by teaching its citizens how to feel is no surprise. “Brave New World,” while an enduring tale, was also a product of a time concerned with totalitarianism and threats to the individual. The job of any adaptation is to retain the DNA of the original while mutating it to the times, and that’s where this version fails.
“Brave New World” was originally developed for NBCUniversal’s Syfy channel, then for USA, and as in some of those networks’ less-accomplished series, its future feels off-the-rack. It’s one of those dystopias in which the prosperous locations vaguely resemble the World Trade Center Oculus and the impoverished zones are strewn with fires burning in oil drums. Its main distinction from basic-cable fare is the copious nudity in the orgies, which are nonetheless antiseptic and unsexy, like a fancy cologne ad.
And this world is populated with flat characters. Demi Moore has little to do as John’s drunk, idle mother, and the antagonists back in New London — suspicious of John’s popularity and of Bernard’s interest in him — are one-note sneering technocrats.
The series doesn’t lack for dystopian pedigrees. The showrunner, David Wiener, hails from Amazon’s “Homecoming” and it shares a director, Owen Harris, with “Black Mirror.” But it doesn’t compare well with either predecessor, each of which better explored the dangers of digitally and biologically fine-tuning humanity.
The one area in which this “World” is reimagined to relate to 2020 is its focus on social technology. The denizens of New London are equipped with eye implants that not only apply a digital overlay to everything they see but connect them to a universal network, in which they can they can see through the eyes of anyone else logged on to the system. It’s the ultimate overshare: Facebook for your face.
This builds on Huxley’s original idea of an anti-individualist society. But more thought seems to have gone into the design of the optical device (a lens with a nerve-like wire, unsettling for those of us who don’t even like putting contacts in) than to what led this society to fetishize radical openness.
In theory, “Brave New World” is ripe for a newly relevant update. After the 2016 election, there was renewed interest in George Orwell’s “1984,” with its warnings about totalitarian politics and language. But as the media critic Neil Postman wrote in his 1985 fire alarm “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (revivified after that same election), the “Huxleyan warning” was in many ways more relevant to Western culture, in which the populace was often seduced by entertainments rather than bludgeoned by blunt force.
This speaks to 2020 — to a point. One difference is how our society’s versions of soma — Twitter, YouTube algorithms — as often seek to inflame as to pacify us. (The pacification, maybe, comes more from the surfeit of streaming-TV services that Peacock is adding to.) If you’re not going to delve into what Huxley has to say to a future nearly a century later, why bother making another adaptation?
There are a few, welcome flashes of life. 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.