The "Utopia" Experiment
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This bloody, technicolor dystopia of a British show is set to break big in the good old USA.
By Jack Doyle
The first five minutes of Utopia are an experience. Picture it: A raisin-eating psychopath, a brutal triple murder and a slow-motion dancing rabbit — all converge in a neon-bright comic book shop.
This dark madcap British TV show might just be the cult series of the decade — we just haven’t caught up yet. But with an HBO remake in the works, Utopia is sure to be a game-changer for Americans soon. Despite a limited audience in Britain, the first series was nominated for multiple awards and made the Guardian’s top three for best of 2013 TV.
Forget what you think you know about British TV for a second (yes, Downton addicts, this means you). Historically, big drama-series winners from across the pond usually come in the form of lavish costume dramas or clever detective shows. Channel 4’s Utopia is a new breed of series entirely. This is guerrilla TV, compressing hour-long episodes into bloody, surrealist landscapes accompanied by a pulsing, murky soundtrack that’s more reminiscent of a David Lynch film than anything else on network television.
‘Utopia’ is sure to be a game-changer for Americans.
Utopia is about a graphic novel — a hook cleverly reflected in the cartoon-panel-esque high-contrast cinematography. A few years in the future, a group of Internet comic enthusiasts discover there’s a secret sequel to their favorite cult graphic novel, The Utopia Experiments. But when one of them acquires a copy, they suddenly find themselves chased out of their normal lives by a deadly organization. It turns out there’s a secret in the manuscript connected to a controversial medical experiment — and some people will kill to get it. Cue a terrifying eugenics conspiracy, a badass MI-5 contact, and some graphic novel artwork that makes Alan Moore look tame.
The setting is cool enough as it is, but Utopia’s morally ambiguous, carefully crafted characters are what really make the series. There’s Becky, a seemingly innocent grad student with a terrible secret, and Wilson Wilson, a paranoid conspiracy theorist whose struggle to adapt to real-life danger makes him one of the most sympathetic characters in the series. Ian, a bored IT consultant, and Grant, a scrappy projects kid with an alcoholic mother, are different but believable kinds of British ordinary. The little family they make on the run comes together not as heroes, but as scared everyday people who have to learn how to survive the hard way.
The cast is a refreshing mix of ethnicities, genders and age — for a change, most of the white men are bad guys (and even then, they’re not the ones in charge). The closest thing the show gets to an action hero is Jessica Hyde, a beautiful, ruthless young woman who’ll manipulate children or steal family cars to survive.
Morally ambiguous, carefully crafted characters make the series.
Utopia’s writer Dennis Kelly clearly knows he’s tapping into a realistic, edgier world: “When I look at our output culturally, I think a lot of it is quite Disney, if I’m honest, very toned down and very soft when we compare it to the real world,” he said.
Can this grungy, Tarantino-esque universe work on American TV? On network channels, maybe not, but the world of TV is changing fast. HBO and Netflix’s high budgets are pushing the envelope of what’s possible on TV, turning serial dramas like True Detective and House of Cards into introspective, abstract, gloriously expansive works.
Tellingly, then, Utopia has caught HBO’s eye.
Previous co-collaborators producer/director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn are leaping into action to create the American adaptation of Utopia. There’s no hint yet about which aspects of the British show will carry over, but given these artistic powerhouses’ backgrounds, a toned-down version is unlikely. We’ll be able to see a sneak preview of their collaborative work in the upcoming film adaptation of Flynn’s novel Gone Girl.
Fincher has gotten Oscar nominations for his direction of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010), but it’s his cult favorite Fight Club (1999) and 2011 epic, the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which make him a prime candidate to turn Utopia into an American smash hit. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo featured a similar genre of stylised violence, and got the most out of complex characters with minimal background story. As the director of the House of Cards pilot, Fincher’s no stranger to gray-area morality either.
Author Gillian Flynn is best known for her novel Gone Girl, a dark murder mystery currently in the works as a film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Flynn isn’t shy about bringing out the darkness in her characters. She recently questioned the notion that women are immune from the classic “bad guy” trope: “There’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish,” Flynn argues. Her literary writing may be just the thing to breathe sharp-edged life into an already rich production.
The next British series of Utopia returns this August. To get a taste for the show, check out Channel 4’s trailer. With the HBO production confirmed and soon to be underway, this odd little series might soon be taking both sides of the Atlantic by storm.
- Jack Doyle Contact Jack Doyle