Utopia – Pilot
The British television industry – like our own here in Australia – can be quite effectively narrowed down into a small number of structures which the vast majority of their drama series follow (though there are of course exceptions). Currently these would be the precisely rendered period piece and the politically tinged conspiracy thriller: the former is firmly designed to appeal to adults nostalgic for the past that they or their parents lived through; the later complicated, wordy and often bloody bureaucratic pieces of storytelling; neither of them offering too much that is new or much designed to appeal to the newer members of the coveted 18-49 demographic.
Enter Utopia, a show that takes the familiar strings of the second structure and shakes them up: by putting the politics second and the people first, by taking the focus off old-media and placing it instead on new forms of communication – comics, chat-forums, etc. – but mostly by building a new mystery from the modern myths that have emerged around these instead of from the tired old tropes that we have come to expect from the Motherland’s stories since before the time of George Smiley. I like British television, I like both of these structures – familiar as they are – but I love what Utopia is attempting to do to them and how they are going about it. Either that or the people at Channel Four are making me say I am; embrace the mystery.
Now I want to make something clear here, though it may have sounded like it from that description this isn’t a conspiracy show for children, it’s not suspense for the Skins crowd (though that wouldn’t be such a bad concept for a show) but something rarer even than that: a show aimed at the people in between their teens and middle-age. The age of the actors cast in the lead roles might be the more obvious clue of this, but for me the more meaningful one is the show’s great score: its quirky melodies and subtle 8-bit touches really capture the mood of each scene -even the sinister ones – while also establishing one for the show as a whole that is much more enjoyable that a straight description of its events would suggest. It’s fresh, its funky, its a bit disconcerting but that’s because its new.
Though half the fun of this pilot is figuring out the plot and just how far along we’re going to be flung through it by the end of the hour I figure I should probably give some synopsis, since you aren’t likely to have seen any ads. ‘The Utopia Project’ is a graphic novel written, drawn and released in the late eighties by a psychotic ex-geneticist; it has garnered a cult audience over the years, including four friends who meet on a forum dedicated to discussing its possibly prophetic meaning. When one of the members mentions having obtained the manuscript of a secret sequel to the text they decide to meet up in person for the first time, only the man doesn’t make it; this is apparently a book worth brutally murdering for. I’m not sure who from the comic scene was involved but it is the kind of story that I can imagine Grant Morrison writing.
Put like that the plot certainly sounds very silly but to the show’s credit it constantly manages to make it work as both a comedy and a drama. It does this, primarily, through the writing of the characters and its very intimate, humanized take on the conspiracy genre, which is usually so cold and clinical. The four comic fans – none the usual nerds one would expect – are all unexpected characters, shocking subversion of the lead role status but by the end of the hour we have warmed to each; something that only serves to make their frightening fates all the more effecting. The villains too, low-level as they are at this stage, are similarly strange and stunning. The only weak link in the cast is the show’s only adult lead: a politician who belongs in some other program, a more traditional conspiracy thriller. The stuff set inside the Office of the Health Minister is fine on its own – and the way that the script uses the word ‘Mission’ marvellous – but it feels too separate, despite the eventual connection being obvious to guess at.
The future of Television world-wide seems to be one of formula, of repeating and re-cycling stories (you don’t need to be a mad prophet to predict that) but that fact doesn’t need to suggest a dystopic industry, Utopia proves that, it proves that even the oldest of forms can be reinvigorated with the inclusion of new blood. The only question now is whether or not the shows youth will allow it to continue performing at this pace and whether it can outrun the issue inherent in the conspiracy genre: the crappy ending. I hope it will, but that only time will tell.