Too often we give TV a narrow task: entertain us. Things like books and music can be expected to move and enlighten us, even shock and disturb us. But generally we want TV to play out in a more convenient manner. If you prefer your boob tube to come with kid gloves, Utopia is not the show for you…
The mini-series format is making a strong comeback these days, particularly thanks to the efforts of the British industry. This compressed format is more than a movie, but packs more punches than long-form series. It allows writers to go for an intense slow-burn that would not reach its peak in a film, but fizzle out in a series. This works well – just look at the fantastic True Detective, a show that combined detailed character studies with edge-of-your seat suspense. But because of that, it’s not the easiest thing to watch. Nor is another mini-series thriller, the dark but brilliant Utopia.
The plot centers around a graphic novel, which has gained a legion of obsessed fans convinced there is more to the story than appears. A disparate group of such fans agree to meet up after the long-lost and unpublished second part of the novel surfaces. But they are up against the odds – at the start of the show a group of people are ruthlessly executed by two assassins, also hunting for the book and a woman called Jessica Hyde. It doesn’t take long before our group of protagonists find their lives turned upside down by a very, very big conspiracy set to change the world as we know it.
Utopia managed to court a lot of controversy. The BBC received a lot of complaints over its violence, which is at times very graphic. But the whole deal is amplified by the show’s dark-yet-vibrant design. Like the Macguffin at its center, Utopia feels like a graphic novel. The world has an almost technicolor feel to it with vibrant colours and stark contrasts. The characters have depth, but are clearly still cut-out cliches. And the story is quite straightforward – simple even.
Yet brilliance is not about your material, but how you execute it. And Utopia knows exactly where it wanted to aim its macabre and intense tale of a few strangers versus the end of the world. This allows characters to change sides – who you once liked you end up loathing and vice versa. Utopia challenges your sense of morality and asks some very tough questions. At first you look down on the characters and their lack of moral fiber. But eventually you start questioning what you would do in the same situations.
This is accomplished over six episodes, each turning the screws so slowly that you might think nothing is happening. But every episode inevitably draws you deeper into the dark tale and you end up taking on a lot. Utopia is one of those shows where sitting through all six episodes (or even more than two at a time) is too much for one brain to handle. While you might have moments of saying “get on with it”, deep down you really don’t want to know how things conclude.
Utopia is a rare event, even in today’s television: a show that refuses to compromise for your comfort and sensibilities. It uses shock moments of violence and extreme situations to jar your view on things, then throws down some difficult moral and philosophical questions that lie at the heart of the graphic novel conspiracy. This is contrasted by stunning cinematography and very vibrant set designs. You may not enjoy it – or even like it. But Utopia‘s compact package is the perfect dose for this show and well worth adding to your visual lexicon.
Last Updated: April 22, 2014