I haven’t been the most feverish fan of ‘out there’ shows like X-Files, Lost, or Fringe, but I have watched all three shows to completion. I mainly started watching to see what all the hype was about, and I eventually finished to figure out where each show was going. The results for shows like that, unfortunately tend to always be underwhelming. Why? High concept shows are harder for audiences and networks to digest. It’s much easier to plop some cheaper to make reality show/carbon copy cop procedural on Thursday nights than an ‘out there’ show that goes in a wild new direction. Networks give high concept, ‘out there’ shows just so much rope before they start interfering. After the allure of ‘the new show’ wears off, networks move these shows to crazy time slots, under promote them, and quietly execute them from the line-up without a peep. To avoid that, showrunners of these shows are forced to reveal huge plot points too early in order to keep viewership up. They betray established characters by shoehorning in romantic relationships or deaths to boost ratings. Ultimately though, showrunners fall into the habit of losing focus and setting their bar so high, they can’t possibly give their viewers a truly satisfying ending. Thankfully some networks have begun understanding shows like that DO have an audience and DO need their space. They understand that shows like that DON’T need to rush and DON’T need gimmicks. They just need freedom and time to tell their stories. Cable has been that refuge here in the states recently. However, UK television has been providing that creative environment for as long as I’ve been watching television. That is why shows like Misfits, and Orphan Black thrive there. Hell, Doctor Who may be the most ‘out there’ show ever made and it’s been around for seventy years in the UK. Series one of Utopia has not only thrown it’s hat in the ring with the other ‘out there’ shows I’ve mentioned, but also stands out as one of the most crazy, unpredictable, original, and UNSETTLING shows I’ve ever seen.
How do I describe Utopia? Hmmmm. Okay, let me try this. Four fans of a strange, impossible to find, comic book go on the run when a shadowy government agency tries to hunt down and kill anyone who knows about or is in possession of the book. The book itself, being a tome or blueprint for some evil master plan to be enacted upon the planet. Sound silly? Well, it kind of is. However, from the first scene of the first episode of the first series, Utopia takes your preconceived notions and whacks them over the head with a baseball bat by showing you a disturbing and UNSETTLING interrogation/multiple murder. The silly is the smokescreen this show uses to catch you off guard time and time again. The graphic nature of the violence comes out of nowhere and grabs your attention. It is used like a super strict nun’s ruler over a parochial school classroom. The thing about the violence, however, is that it is always in service of the story or the situation. It is not violence for violence sake. It is violence that is a result of things that occurred or the catalyst for things that need to happen. I say that because of a controversy this show was swept up in due to the events of it’s third episode and the horrible events of Sandy Hook. I read the story and then watched the scene and I did not see it as a glorifying act. To just chalk it up to irresponsible glorification is a lazy way of viewing it. However, this is a discussion for another day.
The UNSETTLING nature of this show is apparent as well in the cinematography. I don’t usually get into the technical ways things are shot too much, but I think it deserves mentioning here due to the purposefulness of it. Each episode of Utopia is in a psychedelic ultra high contrast. (An LSD user’s heaven.) Shots themselves are nearly always oddly framed and camera movements are sometimes jarringly unconventional. You could be watching a scene of two people talking, and they’ll be completely out of focus from a high angle while an obligatory wall fixture on a nearby building is in focus. A character will be talking directly into camera almost completely obscured by the sun’s glare over their shoulder. Negative space takes center stage more times than not as characters are given tremendous headroom or moved almost completely to one side of the frame. There are super wide establishing shots of sickeningly colorful scenery where the main characters are just dark specks on the horizon. Your eyes in every scene will be darting around trying to find out where the danger will come from. It might be creator Dennis Kelly’s attempt to mimic comic book visuals themselves or just a way to spit in the face of conventional filmmaking in order to stand out. Either way, it oddly works for Utopia, given it’s strangeness.
The performances on the show are all solid. A blessing, seeing as there are some unbelievable situations that happen in this show. However, I never doubt the truthfulness of each character for a second. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett proves that the charm and watchability he displayed on the aforementioned UK show Misfits wasn’t a fluke. Alexandra Roach shines with each witty one-liner she gets to drop. Paul Haggins and child actor Oliver Woollford put in tremendous work. (Though I hope Oliver is eventually given even more things to do on this show.) However, there are three standouts, in my opinion, that give performances you might not have seen before. They are Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson, Neil Maskell as Arby and Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the infamous Jessica Hyde.
We’ve seen conspiracy theory computer geeks done to death in film and televison before. But there is something about Akhtar’s Wilson that separates him from the rest. He doesn’t have the same angst and bitterness portrayed in those geeks before him. He seems happy and at peace with his life. Sure he spouts out some paranoid governmental rumor now and then, but when we meet him, he genuinely likes himself and his family. That warmness helps you relate to him more than if he were angry at the world and didn’t trust anyone. Fiona O’Shaughnessy has the task of playing the girl with all the secrets. The badass. The loner and rebel. Jessica Hyde is like a darker cross between River Tamm from Firefly and Leeloo from The Fifth Element. There are times when her curiosity, brutal honesty, and compassion make her appear very sweet. However, there are other times when it is revealed that she has been feigning those emotions to get what she wants. Thus, leaving us unclear of her true nature. And when she wants to, Jessica Hyde can be downright frightening. O’Shaughnessy plays her like a sphinx most of the time. But when true emotions do come, she pulls them off without shortchanging the character. I’ve talked about the talents of Neil Maskell before in my review of the equally UNSETTLING Kill List. What he does here in Utopia, however, is truly amazing. He takes such a despicable, sociopathic, hauntingly scary, unrelatable character like Arby the hitman and somehow gets you to sympathize with him. Some of the…check that…most of the show’s deplorable acts are done by Arby. You think that he is a lock to be the shows main uncompromising villain. But by the third episode you’ll begin to rethink your feelings on him. How Maskell does that with a character that is a step above robotic, is beyond me. Of course the writing is a huge factor, but there is something beyond Maskell’s eyes that reflects a man that is just lost in himself. A man who knows he is a monster but can’t help his nature. It is a truly great character and performance you’ll be hard pressed to find on American television.
Utopia is an ‘out there’ show with a concept that is dark, UNSETTLING, interesting and very relevant to our society today. Thanks to UK television and a shorter but more potent 6 episode a season quota, it has enough rope to truly tell it’s story. Hopefully, this time, it will be a show with a satisfying ending. Buy a box of chocolate covered raisins….stay away from spoons….make sure to know where Jessica Hyde is….watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.