It was somewhere around the time the first child died that I decided Utopia isn’t for me.
At least I think that’s when it was. Truthfully, Amazon’s mean-spirited adaptation of the UK series from 2013 overflows with so much unearned nastiness that my interest started to waver by the end of the first episode. And that’s not even mentioning the story’s ill-timed focus on a mysterious pandemic, or the vaguely anti-vaxx sentiment that pervades its slow reveal.
Yeah. I know. Not great timing.
Utopia is a mystery at heart. But it doesn’t even start to reveal itself in a meaningful way until the second and third hours. That means an early focus on inexplicably, enigmatically cruel acts is the propulsive energy meant to hook you. Yes, there’s violence, but “Why is this happening?” is the question you’re meant to get stuck on.
It all has something to do with a comic called Dystopia and its recently discovered follow-up, Utopia. The comic is popular enough in the world of the series to have developed a committed fandom of cosplayers and lore geeks. There’s also a separate sub-scene of conspiracy theorists who believe the comic is littered with clues that foretold outbreaks like SARS and Zika.
So when Utopia is discovered and set to be auctioned off at a fan convention, the conspiracy people get in line. That’s how we meet the show’s gang of nerds: Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Sam (Jessica Rothe), Wilson (Desmin Borges), Ian (Dan Byrd), and Grant (Javon Walton). They buy into the theory and believe Utopia contains the secret to an outbreak that threatens the entire planet.
An early focus on inexplicably, enigmatically cruel acts is the propulsive energy meant to hook you.
As we move past the auction and an opening hour that ends with a sudden burst of bloodletting, the world expands and the dark tone of the show sets in. We meet Arby (Christopher Denham), a Utopia fan with a bad haircut, terrible fashion sense, and a dark, unknowable secret. We also meet Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack), the CEO of a company that’s developing a meat alternative, and Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson), a microbiology expert who works for Christie.
Then there’s Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane). Jessica is the fictional star of the mysterious comics, but she’s also a real person. She’s introduced early on as a solitary drifter with violent tendencies, and she quickly becomes Utopia‘s central player.
It’s hard to talk about a story where the mystery is the whole point. I can only synopsize so much before we get into territory that spoils the fun — though to be clear, there’s not much fun to be had.
Utopia struggles to tell its story coherently in part because the twists keep rolling out, right to the end of the seven episodes (out of eight) that were provided for review. So, no, I don’t know how this story ends yet. But I do know enough about where it goes and what it’s doing to acknowledge that it’s not an especially good time.
The violence is handled tastefully for the most part — this isn’t as gory as, say, Lovecraft Country — but that doesn’t mean it’s earned. When a seemingly central character is unceremoniously shot in the head at an early point in the season, we don’t spend much time trying to understand the “why.” This person is dead for reasons that are explicitly spelled out in the moment (not great reasons, I should add), and we barely speak of it again after that.
That speaks to Utopia‘s larger problem: Again and again, it moves right along through big, plot-changing events without taking the time to help us understand what’s going on. At times that’s simply a product of the mystery, with more eventually revealed as questions are answered. But too often, characters act impulsively just because. There’s no evidence of an internal logic guiding key moments and twists.
Being patient isn’t any kind of reward. While I’m sure the season’s eighth and final episode will bring at least some answers, I have no confidence that those answers will be satisfying. Most of the twists that surface over the first seven hours are frustratingly predictable. Our deepening understanding of the onscreen pandemic and what caused it is also just plain hard to swallow in the midst of a real-life pandemic and growing public doubts around the efficacy of a vaccine distributed by a shady faction with ulterior motives.
In the absence of a gripping mystery to keep you on the hook, Utopia has to depend on its cast and its overall feel. The latter is a mess, with hints of dark comedy only occasionally breaking through a dismal moment-to-moment that callously inflicts pain on anyone who’s even remotely likable without ever justifying why it’s happening.
The cast is another matter, which is to say, they’re trying their best. Becky and Wilson are standouts among the nerds — they’re a bit more developed and infused with personality than the others, and so we root for them, even as we know it’s a fruitless hope. The rest of the nerds are relatively empty vessels, taking their cues from a twisting and turning plot.
In the wider cast, Jessica and Arby get the most interesting things to do. And while Arby’s journey is one of Utopia‘s more surprising and hard-to-predict arcs, they both suffer from the same “empty vessel” problem as the rest.
In case I haven’t been clear enough, Utopia is a mess of a TV series. There may be more to take from it for fans of the original UK series, but I truly don’t see how. The flow of the plot is so wrapped up in a mystery that is both confusing and predictable, and so tethered to unearned outbreaks of gratuitous violence, that I’m not convinced foreknowledge of where everything’s going is much of a help.
Utopia arrives for Amazon Prime Video subscribers on Sept. 25, 2020.