It began with a press release back in February of 2014…
Ever so exciting….. but what’s Utopia?
How could I miss knowing about some buzzy UK TV show? A conspiracy thriller? One that – after I started doing some research – centers around a group from a comic book fandom message board who fall headlong down some dark multi-governmental “Rabbit” hole? This required more detailed research. I tracked down the six episodes that aired on Britain’s Channel 4 about a year ago.
And they blew my mind.
Stunningly dark, even soulless, for much of its six episode run, this perfectly crafted mystery box blows up every cliche of the socio-political sci-fi TV thriller. Clearly inspired by Chris Carter’s seminal X Files, Utopia takes this now familiar genre and upends it at almost every turn. The “utopia” in the title is the graphic novel “The Utopia Experiments“, created in the 1990’s by a mysterious madman in an asylum. This cult comic book has developed a devoted fandom, looking for deep and hidden meaning in its darkly impressionistic art (clearly modeled after the UK’s Ben Templesmith, co-creator of “30 Days of Night”) and eerily prescient text. Does the comic book actually say that Mad Cow disease was a governmental creation? Or do we just see what we want in the pages of the comic? Five particularly curious members of an online discussion group about “The Utopia Experiments” think there’s more here that just weird pictures and vague coincidence. Unfortunately, that curiosity sends them down the aforementioned “Rabbit” hole, and soon the survivors are part of a living nightmare of global Illuminati-level conspiracy, random graphic violence, horrifying frame-up jobs, and balanced between two of the most astonishing and vivid sociopaths in television history.
Visually, the show is a pageant of light and dark, explosive color and deep shadow, and visual composition – from director Marc Munden – so inspired by the work of David Fincher, that if Fincher directs any episodes of this potential American version he’s setting up, it’ll almost be redundant. And the scripts, all from writer Dennis Kelly, are just amazing. Clockwork plotting, combined with a fearless, savage commitment to on-screen violence, keeps you gasping long enough to become fully invested in a group of characters who are all too human, far from perfect, far from heroes and, in several cases, totally insane.
The concepts that are the most original are just so deceptively simple. First, the presentation of the deepest evil in the form of the most banal – slow-witted Arby (Neil Maskell) and the absurdly pompadoured Lee – the death-dealing working class schlubs who dispatch anything breathing, at the command of The Network. The Network is the super-secret, multi-national Western cold war spy agency, tasked in the day with keeping up with the Reds in the chemical arms race. Once the cold war ended, The Network went independent, turning its attention to the bigger picture of what to do with the globe. How all this connects to a weird comic book, or maybe two goofy comic books, is the stuff of pure adrenaline-fired suspense.
The next bit of original thinking is to make the women of the cast the most important parts of moving the story along. We have Alice (Emilia Jones), an eleven year-old girl who is unfairly swept up in all this horror, but who makes two adult and crucial decisions that change the fate of the world. Becky (Alexandra Roach) is a post-grad student who believes “Utopia” is somehow connected with the neuro-muscular disease that killed her father. Geraldine James plays Milner, a secret agent (with secrets!) who takes her work pretty seriously. Which leaves us with the enigmatic Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy). Her connection to the “Utopia” comic books and the man who created them is surprising, but not as surprising as her deadly psychopathology.
Really, just take my word for it, if you have the stomach for violence – not just graphic visuals, but acts carried out in ways and on people which are NOT the TV norm – you need to ssek this out and get drenched in Utopia.
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