Mar 22 2013
After Benny’s write-up of Black Mirror, a bunch of recommendations came in for similar shows she, and the rest of us, should experiment with if we liked that sort of thing.
One name kept coming up, “Utopia,” and in many ways it is indeed quite similar to Black Mirror. It’s British, six episodes long, has a sci-fi bent to it and is even on the same network, Channel 4. I decided to hunt it down for myself and have recently finished the first series, and have heard news that a second is on the way.
The premise is quite gripping right off the bat. There’s a graphic novel, Utopia, written by a genius-turned-madman who killed himself shortly after. The bizarre images contained within have drawn conspiracy theorists to analyze what it all means, and a group of them assemble when a member of a Utopia chatroom claims he has the unreleased second edition of the book.
There’s Ian, an IT guy who immediately hits it off with Becky, a PhD candidate. Their third wheel is Wilson, a full blown tinfoil hat paranoia case who is more deeply invested in Utopia than either of them. Eventually they also reunited with Grant, a self proclaimed rich, successful model-banger who is in reality, an eleven year old boy.
When the man promising to deliver the manuscript is killed, it falls into Grant’s care and that’s when things really start to kick off. We soon meet Jessica, an integral part of the origin of Utopia and learn that something Very Bad is going to happen if certain people get their hands on this new manuscript. Eventually we figure out that the entire fate of the world is at stake, and the threat has a genetic/disease/epidemic component, the exact nature of which is slowly uncovered over time.
Utopia is an odd show, and I’m not terribly sure how I feel about it, now that’s it’s all over. The pilot and finale are pretty great, but what’s in between struggled to hold my interest. The grand conspiracy plotline is engaging, and the best part of the program, but it falters from a character perspective, if you ask me.
The central leads simply aren’t compelling characters. This is perhaps best exemplified by Ian, who literally has no backstory other than he was in IT and has a brother. He’s simply a body used to further the plot along, which is strange as at first he seemed like he would be the lead character. Becky and Wilson have more pressing motives, but both of theirs involve their father’s deaths and they never really evolve past that. Wilson gets slightly more interesting at the end, but it just seems odd to me that the three main characters are the least engaging of the program.
I quite liked Grant, the kid, and the actor playing him does a great job. I thought Michael, a civil service worker caught up in the conspiracy is believable as a man who is vastly in over his head. And I quite liked the black souled hitman RB, who commits various atrocities on the show, but has a backstory that explains why. I was disappointed to see him completely fade away by the end of the season. It was strange to see that happen, taking a character integral to the show and not even having him appear in the finale.
The show does a great job of presenting a central conflict that will have you questioning which side you’re rooting for. When you learn the nature of the supposed “threat,” you may indeed find your alliances shifting. The bad guys do horrible things, but does the end justify the means? I’ve seen similar plotlines result in similar questions, but this is one that may actually have you wrestling with the moral implications, as do the characters on the show.
The tone of Utopia is confusing. The quirky soundtrack and strikingly bright color palette make the show seem like it’s going to be something of a dark comedy, but that’s not the case at all. There’s not a single laugh to be found, and despite all the color, the show is pure drama and darkness through and through. You would think that three relatively goofy strangers assembling via a chatroom to discuss the intricacies of a graphic novel would allow for at least some comedy, but past the pilot, which feels different than the rest of the show, there simply isn’t any. Not to say what we do have isn’t good, but it just felt…off to me the whole time.
I love the idea of a graphic novel housing secrets to be revealed as time goes on, but I felt like the show doesn’t really capitalize on that premise. It would have been a cool “new media” thing to simultaneously release an actual graphic novel along with the show and have viewers try to draw their own conclusions, but rather we’re left watching others figure it out onscreen, and we rarely even see the pages for ourselves. If a real-world version of Utopia does exist out there somewhere, I haven’t been able to find it.
I think this is a cool concept for a show. I love the way it’s shot and the overarching story is great. But the characters, particularly the main ones, are relatively lackluster, and the whole tone of it just feels a bit off. With a relatively neat wrap-up, I’m curious to see what happens in series two, as I think Utopia could have existed perfectly well as a one-off miniseries. I guess we’ll have to see.
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