Could the Twisty, Violent, Hyper-Entertaining ‘Utopia’ Be TV’s Best Show?
There are few ways to come off like a pretentious scrotum more reliable than saying “This obscure international show you’ve never heard about is the best thing on television.” Drop that line on a dinner guest, and the response is usually some variant of this:
“Ohhhhh, this ‘best show I’ve never seen’ is foreign. What a surprise. Lemme guess: it’s a 29-part series about a crippled transgender composer written by an Albanian hermit and filmed entirely with a yak-mounted Go-Pro.”
Which is a perfectly reasonable reply in that situation. So feel free to picture me typing this next sentence adorned in fedora and monocle: “Utopia” — a Channel 4 show from Britain (or the United Kingdom, whichever is more pretentious) — might be the best new TV series in years.
Here’s a quick plot synopsis: four ordinary individuals - an IT consultant, a grad student, a pre-teen kid, and a conspiracy buff - come across a manuscript that’s rumored to predict various 20th century disasters. The document is actually far more sinister. An organization called The Network takes notice. They go after the four. Many people die as their role in a massive global conspiracy becomes clear.
It is ridiculously entertaining.
That recap is inadequate for multiple reasons. First off, what’s above more or less takes place in the first episode. Including anything more could spoil the approximately 728 twists, revelations, and double-crosses contained in the next 11 hours. Utopia is also really damn hard to summarize. Pepe Silvia couldn’t keep it all straight.
Utopia is basically Lost, minus everything that irritated you about Lost, plus copious violence. This is a leaner, savvier, more economic creature than Damon Lindelof’s creation. Gone are worthless ancillary characters, mystical elements, and tattoo backstories. Plot is paramount. Dull episodes don’t exist in this universe, mostly because there’s not time for stalling. Questions are raised and answered, often during the course of a single episode. The larger mythology matters immediately and rises in importance with each subsequent hour.
That’s not to say Utopia skimps on character development. Though it initially seems like the protagonists and villains are just cogs in a massive machine, each character becomes fully realized as the series progresses. Most refreshingly, they behave like ordinary people would behave when faced with gruesome death at the hands unknown, omnipresent assailants in service of conspiracy they can’t comprehend. A guy who spends his days debugging code wouldn’t suddenly morph into Jason Bourne the second his life is threatened. British playwright Dennis Kelly, who created the series and wrote all 12 episodes, eschews these lazy shortcuts and still manages to create believable arcs in half the time traditionally allotted to American cable drama seasons.
I won’t divulge The Network’s ultimate purpose as that’s a revelation you deserve to experience with fresh eyes. I’ll say this, though: Kelly’s decision to give his antagonists motivation beyond world domination elevates the narrative far above standard thriller fare. When a conspiracy forces you to consider — even for a second — that a school shooting may have been a worthwhile means to an end, you know you’re breathing rarefied air.
That The Network’s “evil” master plan seems pragmatically proactive after a couple beers allows Kelly to play with constantly shifting allegiances. Not everyone reacts to the revelations in concert. As one character says, “There are no sides; just people who help you, and people who don’t.” A terrifying enemy one episode might become a crucial ally the next. This leads to moral quandaries like rooting for a character who once killed a little girl’s mother right in front of her. You’ll understand once you watch.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Utopia is not a family show. As in, it is not a show to watch in the living room with Brydin and Kaychee at 7 pm. Also as in, families on the show seldom fare well. They’re more likely to be executed in their bedrooms than to share a meal. “Utopia” is unflinchingly brutal, even by modern television standards. Women, children (lots of children), senior citizens and innocent bystanders are coldly - and frequently - dispatched in pursuit of larger objectives. Three people perish before the first episode’s opening titles, a death toll that seems like a rounding error by the time the season two finale rolls around.
Despite the pervasive violence, Utopia is actually far less bleak than say, The Leftovers. Humor is surprisingly frequent. An assassin’s proclamations on Googling, and a sequence involving a Romanian translator’s accusations of racism could slide seamlessly into a Quentin Tarantino flick. Even a doomed man’s prolific arterial spray is played for a pitch black laugh.
Almost nothing on Utopia bows to convention. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s (season one) and Lol Crawley’s (series 2) gorgeous cinematography gives Utopia a look that’s like nothing on television. Bright yellows, electric blues, vibrant oranges, lush greens, fully oxygenized reds - everything from action sequences to ordinary establishing shots incorporate hues from the circus clown section of the color wheel. Marc Munden’s direction (he helmed three episodes in each season) complements Kelly’s boundary-pushing approach to storytelling. Camera angles, shot composition, actor placement - they’re all just a little more stylized than is typical for TV. The entire second-season premiere - a flashback to the 1970s complete with a Rose Leslie appearance - looks like it was filmed with a 40-year-old camera.
Utopia isn’t without wrinkles. One character doesn’t have much to do until late in season 2. An ongoing attempt at a tortured romance is more grating than cute. A side plot about a health minister’s work/marital problems doesn’t connect to the main thread until late in season one. And the second season finale is a mild letdown (although the opening conversation between a network operative and a woman travelling with a sick child is the most vicious non-violent encounter I’ve seen on television).
You might already know that David Fincher and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn are bringing a Utopia reboot to HBO in the near future. Given the talent, network, and source material, it’s almost certain to be a massive hit. Weekly Internet theorizing alone should be enough to cultivate a loyal fanbase. Yes, America indisputably makes everything better. Do yourself a favor and check out the original, though. Because who doesn’t want to sound like a douchebag at dinner?
Utopia: Series 1 is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Brian Byrd frequently cleans his monocle, and doesn’t understand why everyone always laughs when he says that. Follow him on Twitter.