Utopia Season 1 Review: Mildly entertaining conspiracy thriller which has nothing new to say
Rhea Srivastava -
’m still on the fence as to whether Amazon Prime’s Utopia, which premiered today is the most genius or the most inappropriately-timed show of all time. Created by Gillian Flynn (writer of bestselling thrillers like Gone Girl and Sharp Objects - both of which were successfully adapted for the screen), Utopia follows a group of comic book nerds who are obsessed with the eponymous graphic novel and its prequel. Why? Because time has revealed that both comics hold the secrets to many deadly diseases and viruses that have been plaguing humans for a while. It goes without saying that our generation is going through its own little and frankly, overstayed doomsday and Utopia doesn’t shy away from a brutal and voyeuristic type of nihilism. Centred around the world of comic books, its treatment is also comic-ish, and sadly sometimes so are its characters and their concerns. It would really be up to the viewer if the show plays into their biggest anxieties. For me, it’s more about whether that’s a risk I’m willing to take for the sake of entertainment.
What is the story about?
‘Utopia,’ the novel, is found by its dead owner’s granddaughter who uses the opportunity to make some money at FringeCon. Both books are about a girl named Jessica Hyde (whose name you will hear thrown around a lot), who is kidnapped by an anthropomorphic bunny called Mr Rabbit who forces her scientist dad to create new viruses that can decimate Earthlings. Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Wilson (Desmond Borges), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), and Grant (Javon Walton) are all nerds of the dark web who are convinced that Utopia has clues to Ebola, SARS, MERS, and the lot. While they assemble at FringeCon for the highest bid, two nerdy but evil assassins scout through the whole hotel and murder anyone and everyone who gets in their way of grabbing Utopia. Meanwhile, a young woman (Sasha Lane) shows up to save our main five claiming to be ‘real’ Jessica Hyde. There’s also a parallel storyline of Rainn Wilson as Dr. Michael Stearns who is convinced that he has created the next big virus, and headliner John Cusack as Dr. Kevin Christie, whose bio-beneficient corporation is feeding elementary school kids a probiotic meat substitute and perhaps spreading the new flu. Low-income groups and minorities are hit the hardest and many characters and plots are introduced in the first two episodes, so it’s a lot to keep up with.
Utopia is based on a cult British show which ran several years ago. While Flynn started working on the American adaptation long back, it is still deeply unsettling that a show about viruses and the onslaught of irreversible flu would make its debut amidst a modern pandemic. But if this isn’t a bone of contention for you then read on. First things first, the US version of Utopia is nowhere close to its British counterpart, i.e. it may cater heavily to the dumbed-down mass appeal of many such remakes of the past. It may borrow a lot in terms of main plot and character names, but the writers choose to use the first season to introduce more and more subplot which results in a lot of aimless meandering, unnecessarily unsettling humour, and the need to wrap up characters in bizarre ways because well… they’re in the story but we don’t know why.
At its core, Utopia is a conspiracy thriller and the conspiracy at its centre, where the bat-based virus may have been created on purpose, even with all its surprising twists and turns is extremely flimsy. In every conceivable way, the show also squanders on how characters deal with being a part of this bizarre world, coming across as inconsistent, mawkish, and a lot of cringes. While the level of gore in the violence is significantly toned down (sorry if blood is your jam), there’s also a lot of pointless character deaths and mindless action which is probably just for shock value. At the end of the day, even if you don’t seem as perturbed by the mind-numbing number of gunshot wounds and torture scenes, the fact remains that they don’t add any depth or thematic resonance to the story.
Still, the advantage a show has at a time like this is that it’s like a creepy nightmare come to life. The characters of the show try to decipher the secrets of the next virus through sporadic images from ‘Utopia,’ and I have no doubt that nerds would fall into that rabbit hole where they would want to play along. Most of the episodes are a series of revelations that come with the giddy nervousness and excitement of a typical fanboy. There are some funny moments throughout but they’re all handled with a sense of urgency and most of the other humour doesn’t really land.
Two performances that inevitably stand out are Cusack and Wilson. Dr. Kevin Christie is written as a social entrepreneur with the charisma and arrogance of an Elon Musk-ish character. There is a twitchy discomfort in all his scenes which is precisely as it should be, a man at the centre of the controversy which constantly keeps us guessing about his motives. The Office star Rainn Wilson also has a winsome restraint. The unfortunate part is that it is the nerd ensemble that requires the most amount of performance chemistry, and only their individual performances pull through with no group chemistry. Sasha Lane as Jessica Hyde gives a rather one-tone performance with the writing giving her no semblance of a character arc. Denham as the ruthless assassin Arby is rather menacing but also pretty half-baked for a whole season.
Music & Other Departments
The show still has a nice graphic novel influence (not at nice or seamless as The Boys though). But with the backing of Amazon Prime, it has great production design and cinematography. As is the usual case these days, Utopia uses a lot of pop numbers in its soundtrack which is pretty funky. The graphics and imagery of ‘Utopia’ itself is pretty impressive.
Utopia does manage to have a hook in its central story which will keep you watching past the half-way mark, post which usual viewers do end up getting through the whole season. It's not complicated as much as it is convoluted and overstuffed. You may forget what was happening with someone while you were shown something else but at least you’ll still recognize them. There are some rather funny clap-backs to popular culture and corporate machinery. It’s one of those brainless consumptions that would evoke a wry smile due to timing and our current obsession with comic books.
The original Utopia is bold and bright in the way it intersperses action and intrigue with genuine depth, but this Utopia seems to lack its smartness, spunk, and meticulous detailing. The performances and writing are severely lacking. The episodes meander a lot at a 50 minute-mark and could be a lot shorter. Of course, the timing is hilarious but if the show can’t go beyond COVID-19 and power politics, then real life could possibly have a lot more to ponder on.
Did I enjoy it?
John Cusack made me get through it. I was pretty bored after a while.
Do I recommend it?
Let’s just say I’m not a sadist. A pandemic is a pandemic. Watch at your own risk because both the violence and virus talk could be easy triggers. Even if not, this is pretty low-brow entertainment, you could always just watch the original Utopia (also streaming on Amazon Prime).