Updated: Nov 6
Is Utopia the unluckiest show in 2020?
For many, cinema is a tool of escapism. We go to a dark and isolated movie theater for a 2 pm showing and leave wondering why it’s still daytime. Utopia, however, has the opposite effect. It would be impossible to review Utopia without mentioning the creepy parallels the show has with the events in 2020. Even though Gillian Flynn began adapting the British acclaimed show created by Dennis Kelly, 6 years ago, the current relevance of the show’s plot adds a level of eerieness unintended by either Flynn or Kelly. Between a pandemic, a vaccine, and a conspiracy theory that links them both to the end of the world, Utopia may be the most unfortunate show released in recent years.
The show centers around 4 eccentric friends that obsess over a comic called Dystopia. In true nerd fashion, this group of friends has only talked to each other over the internet. They plan to finally meet in person at the annual comic book convention Fringe Con. Ian who works as an insurance salesman but has none of the charm, Wilson the conspiracy theorist, Samantha the activist, Becky the nice one, and Grant the 10yr old posing as a middle-aged man, are the band of misfits we follow in this story. They decide to meet at Comic-- I mean Fringe Con. This is because of a young couple who found the unpublished manuscript to the sequel of Dystopia -- called Utopia -- and are selling it to the highest bidder at the conference.
Dystopia follows Jessica Hyde, a little girl whose father is kidnapped by the nefarious Mr. Bunny and is forced to create a series of deadly viruses for Mr. Rabbit to weaponize against the world in order to keep Mr. Rabbit from hurting his daughter. Jessica and her caretaker Artemis, have to stay out of Mr. Rabbit’s reach by staying on the move. The premise of Dystopia itself is enough to attract a cult following but not to our protagonists. To our protagonists, Dystopia isn’t just telling a story but also contains hidden clues about future global catastrophes. From SARS to Zika, Dystopia predicted terrible catastrophic events with clues hidden in the smallest details like a leaf in the shape of Uganda. According to our main characters, Utopia could be the key to predicting something much bigger than an outbreak -- it could predict the end of the world.
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The emergence of Utopia did not only attract life-long fans, but it also attracted two ruthless killers sent by a shady organization to destroy Utopia and kill anyone who has seen it, starting with the young couple who found it. This leads to one of many scenes full of graphic and gratuitous violence that lacks the empathy it needs to ground the viewer into the story. Trailing in the killer's footsteps, looking for the same thing they are, is a woman who is feral and untamed by society. It's revealed that this woman turns out to be Jessica Hyde. The girl from the story of Dystopia.
In the world, a lethal new strain of the flu breaks out in a middle school. Kevin Christie, CEO of a multinational corporation, and Michael Stearns, a virologist, rush to create a vaccine for it but the more we learn about the upcoming pandemic, the more the vaccine sounds like a problem in itself. Eventually, Jessica Hyde meets up with our ragtag group of heroes and together they use the hidden meanings inside Utopia to solve the mystery of the new pandemic and the biggest question of the season, how do you stop the end of the world?
Utopia is not for the faint of heart. The extent of violence is a lot for anyone to handle and at times, I found it painful to continue watching the same repetitive acts of brutality. Even though the violence is extremely graphic what made it less engaging was the incognizant reaction to it. Throughout the story, these normal geeks slowly fall into a life filled with death, gore, and conspiracy but their reactions are surprisingly level-headed. They overlook the brutal murders that took place in front of them and the scopes of the conspiracies they uncover whenever a new plot point pops up. The only character that feels remotely believable of our heroes is Ian because he asks questions and has a semblance of moral conflict. Part of the blame can be put on the fast-paced nature of the show in an 8 episode season but the lack of grounded reactions from the characters kept me detached from the story.
What started out decent with some twists and turns that kept you engaged ended as a rushed and uneven mess. The last two episodes felt very forced as if the writers couldn't figure out how to get where they needed to go in only 8 episodes. Many pivotal moments felt underserved because the build-up to those moments was not properly fleshed out and many key points of conflict were undermined by plot devices that took any tension out of the scene. It's clear that by the end of the season the group of geeks was supposed to take notes from Jessica on how to kickass and then apply it in the finale but instead, it came off as contrived and plainly unearned. Characters were written into corners (corners who should've had much bigger obstacles) and then Flynn wrote a door to get them out of that corner which led to a disappointing end.
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The original British version of Utopia is beloved by the cult following of fans and a noticeable difference between the two shows is in the characters. Becky (played by), is much sweeter in the American version, Ian is white, but the character that changes the most is Jessica Hyde. The cold and stoic Jessica from the British version is much different than the wild and primitive Jessica in the new one. Sasha Lane does a great job bringing an emotional core to a character with such a barbarous exterior. Despite Jessica doing many things that are morally detestable, somehow you end up rooting for her in the end. Arby (played by Christopher Denham) is a similar character. His character is framed as a cruel assassin but he looks as plain as you can get. The child-like Arby commits terrible acts throughout the season but ultimately, he finds his humanity and we can't help but root for someone who discovers that they're more than just a monster. There are many characters that were completely created by Flynn as well. Kevin Christie (played by John Cusack), Michael Stearns (played by Rainn Wilson), and most people in their storyline have no counterparts in the original series. Flynn used the original series as a stepping stone to creating something completely different.
Despite the attempt to have the biggest twist of the season in the finale, the biggest twist of the show will always be the resemblance to the events of 2020. You can't help but feel uncomfortable in scenes when a pandemic, vaccine, the mistrust of them both, or even social engineering of public opinion takes place within the show. Overlooking that, Utopia suffers from what many streaming shows suffer from which is - it is too short of episodes/seasons. Similar to The Boys season 2, 8 episodes proved not enough for Flynn to tell a well rounded and fleshed out story. Since Flynn wrote all of these episodes by herself, hopefully, the potential next season benefits from having a writer’s room to back her up.
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