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Could the Twisty, Violent, Hyper-Entertaining ‘Utopia’ Be TV’s Best Show?

By Brian Byrd | TV Reviews | August 26, 2014 | Comments ()


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Ricky, Bubbles & Julian

    where is this showing? i couldn't find it on netflix. any other source?

  • Ian Fay

    The spoon scene will never, ever, not be burned into my retinas.

  • robinvik1 .

    I'll get the bleach.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    As much as I like Fincher this is just so...unnecessary. The show is perfection. We don't need this remake anymore than we need a version of the Mona Lisa in front of the Grand Canyon.

  • Sirilicious

    oops

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    I dislike it because I think it takes away from the original, and in a way insults the audience because, what, Americans can't watch a British show? Game of thrones anyone?

    Since we're all English speakers, a remake just seems senseless unless there is some really compelling take, some aspect of American culture that demands to be addressed that wasn't captured in the original. Immitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but I'd rather have Fincher work on something fresh.

  • Meenama

    Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and Downton Abbey are doing just fine in the U.S. without having been remade for the American market.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Exactly! Import, don't remake.

  • Remakes are primarily about exposure to American audiences. I watch a lot of TV. I follow the industry closely. I had never HEARD of this show until a fellow Pajibian tipped me off. Even then, it was hard to track down the episodes.

    There's too much quality TV out there right now. Audiences aren't going to bend over backwards to find a British TV show when there are two dozen other alternatives. A remake brings the story to our living rooms and increases interest in the original at the same time. Im all for the reboot.

  • Zuffle

    Hey, I'm a Brit, and I hadn't heard of Utopia until you told me about it. So I ask my friends: Have you heard of Utopia? I was the only fuck who hadn't seen it. That's now rectified. It's genuinely sublime. So I guess, in a roundabout way, I'm saying 'thank you' for alerting me to shit that was happening in my own back yard without me knowing.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Why not just buy the rights and broadcast it in the US rather than re-making it? Instead of fixing what ain't broke, why not just give what already exists a platform? A short series like this would probably do well airing between seasons when there's not a lot of competition.

  • Sirilicious

    Sorry, i wanted to reply to DartBrookes, so i deleted the free roaming "why the hate for reboots" comment.

    I agree with most of your points, but I don't think it takes away from the original. Will you like the original less? Or what do you mean by it?

    I usually think they shouldn't bother, but often i see people reacting strongly to a proposed reboot, and that i don't get. I am happy about BSG though.

  • lowercase_ryan

    THANK YOU FOR THIS!!! I'm thrilled you love it! I just want to get the word out, this show deserves our eyes and ears!!!

  • bcarter3

    "...this show deserves our eyes and ears!!!"

    Subtle reference to S01E01.

  • Slobby79

    I like to think of it as modern noir in vibrant color. its amazing. for the 12 of us who have actually seen it they know just how good it is. There's nothing like it. It's creep, loud in colour, but perfectly british drab and droll. Incredibly violent. For real incredibly violent, but not in overt manor. or better put it doesnt linger on the violence, sometimes as in season 2 it shows the slow violence but the camera is set far back (empty office scene). it does kind of play like a graphic novel. I tell everyone to see it. Yes, season 2 ended and i thought there would be another episode, but its still great. what can i say i love it. the only thing i can compare it to are the first two series of Misfits in terms of being so british but new and great.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Is it gory, or is it just a bunch of people being randomly killed, a la Delocated?

  • robinvik1 .

    Semi-randomly. Every kill has a purpose.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Hm. Every virus has a purpose too, but I don't think I want to handle that.

    My sister has to actually pre-screen shows to determine if I'll be able to get through the violence--this is how broken I am...and this is why I can't watch Game of Thrones. What the hell is this show?

    'They poured molten gold over his head?'
    'Yes. and it was AWESOME!'
    'Wasn't awesome when it happened to Crassus.'
    'It's awesome now.'

    'I don't know what the dragon did, we've discussed this.'
    'Oh, the dragon incinerated him.'
    'Well, he did break a lot of his campaign promises to the dragon.'
    'I loved it.'

    'What the shit kind of wedding is that?'
    'No, it was good, let's watch it.'
    'I was at your place when you watched it and you screamed.'
    'Heh, heh. Yeah.'

    'He freaking popped his head open?'
    'Yes, that was the explosion, do you wanna watch the scene?'
    'Are you new?'
    'Aw. Poor [REDACTED], tell me if you change your mind.'

    She says that I watch television like a baby raccoon and she's not wrong. She's really the only person who is sympathetic towards my bullshit.

  • robinvik1 .

    I meant that the violence on the show is not gratuitous, I don't think anyone is killed because someone feel like killing them until well into season 2. But it's definitely a violent story.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Oh, I understood how you meant it, if I wasn't clear--which is frequently the case. The problem is me, 100%. I can't don't handle onscreen violence well, regardless of context. I remember having to read that Iain Banks book Complicity in university and it didn't sit well. I also had to sit through the original Dawn of the Dead, Once Were Warriors and read excerpts from 120 Days in Sodom. What the hell were they teaching us? Anyway, I got nowhere with the de Sade, couldn't even take the 'tame' parts. Don't our bodies have enough pleasure holes, why do we need more?' When I got to the bit about raping a pregnant woman to death on a bed of nails, it was OVER. That was the only time I ever straight-up didn't do my homework.

  • space_oddity

    Randomly killed, but also torture. Agonizing EYE TORTURE. (And I'm only up to episode 5 of the first series).

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    Oh, I see. Looks like my wuss gene wins out again. Thanks for the notice.

  • space_oddity

    Yes, I have recommended this to everyone I know, but with the caveat about torture. I can barely watch graphic movie torture, and I know lots of people who refuse to.

  • Sirilicious

    I really liked s1, aside from some problems, but i had the first episode of s2 lingering on my comp till this afternoon. I had nothing else to do, so i watched it and got sucked back in. As Britanny said*, the score is haunting and wonderful.

    * I swear i am not a spambot.

  • logan

    No.

  • Ozioma

    You basically said everything I keep screaming about on this show perfectly. I cannot cannot wait for season three.

  • underscoreBlake

    I LOVE EVERYTHING about this show.

    *Have they announced yet whether or not there will be a Series 3?

  • barlowjk

    It could be, and is.

    I wake up at 5:50 every morning, which means I go to bed at 9:30 pm. I am very protective of my sleep. But Utopia Season 2 was on from 10-11 on Tuesdays and I'll be damned if I didn't walk into work every Wednesday like a zombie, because what, am I going to watch it on iPlayer the next day?

    No, I am not.

    Nice review, but I protest your description of Rose Leslie's role as an "appearance". Rose Leslie was a game-changer. Rose Leslie outdid the present-day depiction of that character by a mile.

  • bcarter3

    Simultaneously ultra-violent and flat-out gorgeous. Easily the best British show in years.

    Watch the first five minutes here, and you'll be hooked:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

  • This has been on my "to-watch" list for months. Last time I checked it was available to stream from Channel 4's website - I'll have to bump it up the list.

  • Brittany

    I'm amazed that you wrote about Utopia without mentioning its fantastic score. I rarely buy soundtracks these days but I bought this one. It's wonderfully haunting and creepy.

  • underscoreBlake

    The theme is my ringtone.

  • barlowjk

    YES, god yes.

  • I cut the score graf for length. You're right -- it's fantastic. Feels like the soundtrack to a lunatic asylum (in a good way).

  • Jezzer

    If you name your children "Brydin" and "Kaychee," your family deserves every mental scar a show can inflict upon it.

  • denesteak

    I'm so confused. My friend put up a photo on Instagram of a Utopia poster in a subway station, and the tagline was, "No leaders. No rules. No plumbing." It was on FOX.

    Her caption for it was "RAPE: THE SHOW".

    Somehow, this doesn't sound like that show...

  • There is a US reality show called Utopia, which so far sounds like a glorifies Survivor meets Kid Nation: a bunch of "different" people are stuck in a isolated land and have to establish "utopia" by trying to agree on stuff, like guns or religion. That is probably the show your friend is talking about

  • denesteak

    ah! that sounds ... terrible.

  • DarthBrookes

    Yes. It could be.

    This show is brilliant and I can't wait for the third and fourth seasons. I'm filled with creeping dread about the American reboot. Despite who's attached to the project.

  • Sirilicious

    I never understand the hate/dread/upset over reboots, whether they are
    from foreign or old originals. If it's good you have something cool to
    watch and if (you suspect) it is bad, you just don't watch it.

  • robinvik1 .

    The death of creativity makes us sad.

  • Sirilicious

    Good answer. :o)

  • DarthBrookes

    Have you heard of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, the brilliant, biting BBC drama (or dark comedy, depending on what pills you're prescribed)? Unlikely. Have you heard of She-Devil, the awful Rosanne Barr film? Having seen the latter would you have any interest in watching the former?

    How about The Singing Detective? Again, I'm refering to the incredibly twisted and emotionally turbulent BBC drama - not the absolutely unwatchable American movie that was perhaps the worst thing Robert Downey Jr. has ever done.

    If you haven't seen the original, but have seen these tone-deaf, fumbling remakes, your opinion of the material is going to be less than appreciative.

    Here's one for you, if you haven't seen the British TV show The IT Crowd, watch the first episode... Then, watch the American remake, staring Joel McHale. Do you like Joel McHale? Hey! Me too! Until I saw the American pilot for The IT Crowd remake. Now, every time I see him, I have to concentrate to make myself forget what he did. Sometimes I have a nose bleed and miss the lead in before the credits of Community.

    The problem isn't a shitty show that I can choose not to watch, it's that if I say to someone, "hey, I love [insert TV show or film]!" I get a response along the lines of, "what are you stupid? That [show/film] was terrible!" And I'm like, "wait, did you see the original or the American remake?" And they're all like, "I can't see how that show would be any good, no matter who made it first! ...You fucking hipster." Then violence ensues. The police get involved...

    Worst of all, the really crappy US rip-offs get syndicated (often the whole or most of the first season is filmed before it airs and gets cancelled after the first episode) and sold off cheap. So we hear that a certain show is getting good reviews, but oh look! The same show (more or less) for half the price! And that's the one that gets put to air in Australia or wherever.

    So yeah. I get a bit protective of original material, particularly when it gets *translated* into a more American audiences friendly format.

    Even American shows aren't safe. Try explaining to the modern tween why Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to be good. Look into that blank, slack-jawed stare, and then you will know...

    Then you will know.

  • Sirilicious

    Consider me educated.

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