Ominious. Gripping. Scary. Thrilling. Funny. Hypnotic. These are all adjectives that apply to Channel 4's recently-departed drama, Utopia.
The biggest struggle here is not to spoil the teensiest bit of this glorious dramatic series, and yet give you enough reasons to try to see it. I had to go out of my way to watch it in the US, its limited availability making it a little more difficult to experience, too. So how can I entice you? Let’s start with the simple phrase, “Where is Jessica Hyde?” I heard that question dozens of times over the course of Utopia's 12 episodes. Those words never grew old - even when I knew the answer – often portending great uncertainty and danger.
Yet that’s sort of skipping right past the premise: A bunch of geeks meet in a London pub. These people all spend time on a web forum where they talk about The Utopia Experiments, a cult comic book independently published in the UK. Ian, as the newest member, is shocked to learn from Wilson and Becky that this colorful and creative work is rumored to spell out the details of a real-life conspiracy. But how can anyone predict the socio-political secrets lurking inside a graphic novel that predicts global doom? Who could imagine what kind of trouble one can get into just by following a web forum? Why is a fourth forum user absent from the gathering? And do any of these web surfers know that a handful of people died in a London comic shop that same day?...
From there, we watch as the forum members – Ian, Becky, Wilson, and Grant – find the world around them becoming stranger and more dangerous with each passing hour. They don’t know who’s chasing after them or what those people want, following the slimmest of threads to unravel the threat that might kill them at any moment. All they do know is that their hunters are so resourceful as to make the stakes extremely high.
There must be some cultural zeitgeist pushing creative people in this general direction. For one thing, Utopia has a bit in common with the CW‘s Cult, wherein the events on a popular TV show were connected to a larger conspiracy of unknown purpose and power. More aptly, however, Utopia’s cast resembles that of BBC’s Survivors – a disparate team that comes together to form a de facto family, one that struggles to keep on living and to understand what’s happening around them. Unlike Survivors, we’re not thrust into a post-apocalyptic catastrophe, but perils grounded in real world situations. And, ultimately, Utopia’s sheer quality far outstrips that of Cult, and its storyline is much smarter, more driving and more engaging than the Survivors' story was.
The central mystery is compelling and handled magnificently by the writing staff. The individual plots that you follow from week to week can start to take on the urgency of a countdown. In addition to laughing, feeling outraged, or the semi-constant state of awe I experienced, Utopia actually managed to give me an adrenaline spike on occasion.
It’s incredibly rare for a series to have such a powerful, palpable physical effect on me. Alongside successfully promoting social change or making a viewer think about serious issues, can a TV series aspire to more than that? Can you shoot higher than to hold your audience, completely?
Before the end of the pilot, this program ceases to be interesting and becomes downright arresting. And a lot of its impact has to come down to elements that go beyond its nifty, skillfully-crafted narrative. The first one that comes to my mind, is the cinematography on display.
The visuals here are beyond exquisite. Nearly every shot in Utopia looks completely gorgeous, like they were recorded on rolls of film blessed by the gods, or as if the show were filmed by the Beethoven of camera operators. This is seen not just in the composition and framing, but in set dressing that puts primary colors everywhere, a choice that really helps make the images pop. It's all bolstered by extraordinary color-grading work, which is kind of a cheat, and yet looks so good that I can't complain about it. Primary colors are also a big deal for the cool-looking title cards that open up each episode.
Another standout is the visual design. One character has a bright yellow bag, whose handles frequently fall to look like a smiley face. Like getting on a rollercoaster and being at the crest of a rise, that bag is an exhilarating sight. There are tons of still shots with slow push-ins, which reminds me of the superb sensibility of David Fincher. And most eps start with a shot of a field or a home, then push in to make the viewer feel like they’re on the same kind of inevitable path that our protagonists are on. The lighting and color grading of each scene completes the effect, offering a perfect sight to the eyes – even when the contents of the moment are horrific or repellent.
Imposters entries were all about giving me a chance to engage in critique of graphic art. What I’m driving at here is that I could teach a master class in cinematography or photography using nothing more than the first six episodes of this show. I’m nearly jealous.
Furthering this embarrassment of riches is the superb musical score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. The accompanying music sometimes mimics or reflects the diegetic noises that the characters would be hearing in their scenes, feeling even more perfectly-synched to the on-screen events than most scores usually are. Discordant electronic cues, cuts and scratches are mixed with and accompanied by common instruments like xylophones, harp, and steel drums, as well as odd noises and distorted snatches of speech.
As it’s employed, the combination matches the disorientation and estrangement that the cast faces. Even the more mellow and low-key tracks have this drugged-out Alice in Wonderland vibe - a person walking on a bright Sunday, stumbling down the street while they trip b--ls. This effect is amplified by excellent use of both the left and the right audio channels.
I also have a deep love for the main theme – like, more than a friend. The song begins with a foreboding tone that recalls Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, then folds in electronic elements before bursting out into a great, calypso-esque tune. It begins and ends every episode, and no matter what's on screen at the time, it's hard not to laugh or crack a big smile as the theme starts to play. I will buy the soundtracks for both seasons soon, which I’ve only delayed in doing because I’m quite busy.
The visual and audio work combines with a solid script and twisty plots to make for nothing less than television gold. Somehow, the tension, twistiness, moral complexity, and stakes rise only higher in the second season, with the performances, direction, dialogue, camerawork, and score staying at least as good as they were in the first 6 eps. Even the Romanian Olympic judges would give the show-makers a 10/10.
It's been a repeated point over my last several TV reviews, but the cast is a major factor in how well this show plays for audiences. Of the major players, the only one familiar to me was Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Ian Johnson. I always loved his work as Curtis on Misfits - and, although Ian (a corporate IT employee) and Curtis (a failed track star/super hero) are wildly different roles, Nathan is probably the most charismatic person in the cast.
Aside from the good performances and well-written roles, it's the BBC's ongoing commitment to diversity in casting that makes me extra happy here. The series is set in London, but Curtis is joined by Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson, who also reflects the wide range of people who are UK citizens. Wilson is, simply put, one of the most distinct and enjoyable characters I've seen on TV. Likable, thoughtful, and extremely paranoid, his mentality fits beautifully into the premise of this show. Often barreling through an array of emotions, Wilson's force of personality is striking, and his plotlines are incredibly eye-catching.
Sure, the rest of the main cast is composed of Anglo-Saxons, but Alexandra Roach's post-grad student, Becky, is a far cry from the average TV female. She got girl-next-door good looks rather than being wildly gorgeous, and she has a body type that looks realistic. Oliver Woollford is asked to do a lot as the 11 year-old miscreant, Grant Leetham. Oliver's youth never translates into sloppy acting, and he does well with what he's given, although he does carry one or two of the weaker plots.
Rounding out the major players is Fiona O'Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde. All I can safely say is that Jessica is like what if the title role in Amelie took a drug that made her violently dangerous - all the light-hearted whimsy of a romantic dreamer combined with the cold determination of someone who will survive no matter who she has to hurt. She's incredibly capable, but it's never clear whether she has good or bad intentions, and there’s really no telling how sane she is; it adds a great additional element of uncertainty to a story that’s already packed with ambiguity.
These five are supported by a couple dozen actors and actresses from throughout the British Isles. A lot of care must have gone into their selection, as you almost never feel someone was miscast. The only two recognizable faces here - Ian McDiarmid (Palpatine from Return of the Jedi and the Prequels, who I originally mistook for Bernard Hill, King Théoden from LotR) and Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) - do really fine work and are used well.
So, we have cinematography that makes me go weak in the knees. It's combined with an intriguing mystery of unknown scope and aim. Add a cast of able performers who get solid roles, development, and scripts. The score is lush and the main theme is catchy as hell. And this program is overseen by a funny, macabre, smart team of writers who have an admirable knack for inventiveness.
It's a sin - virtually a war crime, in fact - that Utopia wasn't picked up for a third season. I don't think the reason was the most obvious controversy - the show’s occasional bout of very intense violence. I'm talking "oh my god don't make me look, oh s--t, thank god this isn't visually-graphic" violence.
The storyline and characters are so good that even my friends who are squeamish continued to follow along. But I simply had to warn you... In fact, the biggest danger of doing an internet search on this series is that you may accidentally read about one or two things that made headlines. Trust me, these are scenes that you should never, ever have spoiled for you.
A far more likely factor in its cancellation was due to an entirely different controversy. At some point, Utopia includes the real life 1979 assassinations of two political figures - Airey Neave and Richard Sykes - into its twisty narrative. Both men were killed by violent groups supporting Irish independence, and there was a strong public outcry to this writing choice. So it's likely that someone at Channel 4 remembers those days and got furious over it - nor can I really blame them, as Neave was killed by a car bomb outside the House of Commons, and Sykes was shot in the head. Whatever the Ireland-England situation, those deaths are too significant and too recent to just fold into a purely fictitious story so that it has more “oomph” or verisimilitude.
I s--t you not, if I played and won a big Lotto payout, I'd commission more of this. Or, hell, really any kind of show that's dedicated to those kinds of elements - it could be called Silly Fun Times With Friends, as far as I'm concerned. It’s all even more frustrating because when I talk to people about this program, I have to make clear that I’m not referring to the Netherland's reality TV series, Utopia – nor to FOX Network’s stateside version, which bears the same name. The sheer product confusion is kind of dizzying...
Moreover, I have to declare shenanigans because David Fincher pitched a stateside remake to HBO - and the cable channel bit! It's great that the program isn't truly dead, and it's even better that Fincher intends to direct all the episodes, as he's one of the few people I'd trust to do this reasonably well, but...
But this is such an unnecessary remake, the original version was just perfect, and it's offensive that the Channel 4 work couldn't just receive more funding (even maybe a cash kick-in from HBO for airing rights). For fuck's sake, the HBO production was optioned a while before the non-renewal notice came down.
Despite the occasional element that I didn't agree with, and seemed a bit cheap or a bit of a cheat, I wouldn't change anything about this show. And nothing Fincher can do will genuinely improve upon it. Why can't we get nice things? Or, why can we get them, but not keep them?
So what are the flaws here? Well, like a lot of TV shows, there’s an entire plotline that’s completely undermined by the existence of something called “the camera phone.” Moreover, the bad guys seem to be able to do whatever they want to, whenever they want to – some reasonable answers on that score do come down the road, but it can strain suspension of disbelief. I felt this same disconnect, just even more strongly, about a scientist who conducts psychological experiments, when psychology is not that scientist’s field at all; really – it’s as ridiculous as a chemist conducting physics research.
Also, as much as I feel that the violence is brutal stuff to watch, it almost always feels appropriate. There are, however, a few times where it seems the bad guys are more doing something bad than they’re doing something cold, yet smart. Then again, the good guys suffer from attacks of situational stupidity, so I guess it balances out. And everyone has secret conversations in a normal speaking volume, which drives me up the wall. Regardless, it’s actually impossible to be bothered by the show for more than a second because of how meaty and fun the plot developments are; these tiny foibles are miniscule in comparison to everything else the viewers get.
The series is meticulously plotted, as if everything were carefully sketched-out, with the writers figuring out exactly what to include in (or withhold from) each ep. Disparate threads are deftly woven together, you can never tell what they writers are gonna do next, and confusion is used to great effect on both the players and the audience.
On the rare occasion, it seems like they’re milking certain moments – but, even if that’s the case, the editing is so perfect that any such narrative excess seems diminished. When the pacing of almost every scene is this tight and this steady – and, often, quite funny – it’s hard to doubt the creative forces behind the series. I give them extra leeway because they’re so good at writing amazingly awkward scenes, because of the plausible moral, intellectual, and philosophical impasses at play here, and because the roles can display a sense of flexibility that’s actually credible. These aspects are missing from, or undercooked in, many works that aspire to do exactly those things at which Utopia excels.
Goodnight, Wilson Wilson. Goodnight, Arby – Neil Maskell must’ve had quite a challenge portraying you. And goodnight, Jessica Hyde – your violent, demented variation on Amelie was as touching as it was badass. I, and most anyone else who’s seen Utopia, will feel its absence from the airwaves for a long time – but I’m never going to forget that I was lucky just to have experienced it in the first place. Do yourself a favor and follow my recommendation – look up the first two episodes, watch them, and then spread the word.
[7/2/15 Update: HAHAHA, my American brain read the words "public UK television" and just turned off after that. The series was a Channel 4 production, even if the funding comes from the public. I was so shocked by my lapse, I dropped my monocle! But I have corrected my words accordingly.
7/7/15 Update: I resolved a few typos that got past me the first 5 times I read over my post. Sigh.]