“Brave New World,” a TV adaptation of the Aldous Huxley novel, takes place in a fictional universe in which pleasure and indolence are the paramount virtues; individuals in the upper echelon of society (served by those bred to be beneath them) spend their existences in a pursuit of leisure one might call single-minded if we suspected any of these poor creatures had much to call a mind at all. This everything-is-free ethos hides a deep repression: The wealthy spend their lives doing nothing in order that they may stay in line.
All of which makes it an uneasy fit for a streaming-TV adaptation — premiering with the July 15 launch of NBCUniversal’s new service Peacock — from the very start. It’s a bit rich to be expected, as a viewer, to form a critique of the idle characters onscreen while sinking into hour four of a binge. It also stacks the deck: So many of the characters we meet in this series are not merely loathsome but have so completely had the character trained out of them through a lifetime of sloth that we grab onto what little signs of life are there elsewhere.
Those sometimes flicker from Jessica Brown Findlay, the “Downton Abbey” actress here playing Lenina, a citizen of the show’s futuristic uber-city of New London who feels some doubt about the life she’s been assigned. With a member of her cohort (Harry Lloyd), Lenina travels to the “Savage Lands,” a region of Earth that hasn’t been groomed and remade along New London’s utopian lines. It’s intended to provide simple titillation and reinforcement of New London’s core values, but Lenina encounters not merely a roguish stranger (Alden Ehrenreich) but also a rebellion that challenges her perceptions.
Both Brown Findlay and Ehrenreich (of movies including “Solo” and “Hail, Caesar!”) seem frustratingly tamped-down here. Brown Findlay has the problem of her character’s personality having been largely squashed by her surroundings, but Ehrenreich — playing a character raised in the wilds by a troubled, secretive mother (Demi Moore) has no such excuse, but perhaps that the outsidedness of the Savage Lands might dwarf all but the most dialed-in of performers. To wit: The theme-park-like zone of degradation features living exhibitions of all the vices New London had left behind, with staged superstore stampedes standing in for the greed and privation of the old way.
The Savage Lands’ stage plays make a point about the manner in which propaganda is communicated to the gullible, depicting disengaged performers running through a rote script they don’t themselves believe. The rest of the show, though, commits these sins, staging, for instance, endless orgy scenes in order to communicate, again and again, that the citizens of New London live lives absent any virtue but gratification. The point comes through so often and completely that one starts to wonder if it’s much of a point at all — and, but for little extant bits from Huxley’s work, like Lenina’s name, there’s no meaningful explication of New London’s politics beyond what they look like as lived by its version of the one percent.
Unlike the book to which it’s most frequently compared, George Orwell’s “1984,” Huxley’s “Brave New World” is far more driven by its milieu than the elements of character and plot; the rewards it provides come from the way its depiction of radical class stratification mirrored its world then, and ours now. Both Ehrenreich’s and Brown Findlay’s characters exist in the book, but their stories are action-movie amped-up and surrounded with indulgent, goofy depictions of future sex that seem eventually to serve no purpose greater than titillation. No wonder the actors seem exhausted; their project, deep into its first season, doesn’t know what kind of show it wants to be. It’s a shame, and somewhat fitting of the show’s consumption-first universe: “Brave New World,” handed a fully-thought-through creative bible, could find no more substantial goal than getting the viewer to click play on the next episode.