Perhaps it’s just the fact that so many American shows (cough…cough…Gotham) are utter shit-garbage but it seems to me that most British shows are a lot more interesting than much of what we have to offer. Granted, this could easily be because we only hear of the great British TV programs. They probably have tons of awful shows too but those aren’t the ones that make their way across the pond. Most imported TV programs only come our way if they are actually worth watching. Even then, some of them are hard to find and many people avoid them out of some misplaced sense of nationalism, which is ridiculous. A good story is a good story, no matter where it comes from. And American TV executives are surely paying attention. Broadchurch, an intense, emotional murder mystery, has been remade as Gracepoint and the show I’m here to convince you to watch today is being remade on HBO with David Fincher attached to direct every single episode while Gillian Flynn handles the writing. I’m normally against US remakes of foreign programs but Utopia shows promise for a variety of reasons we’ll get into later. Nevertheless, you need to watch the original version.
First off, let me make one thing clear: I’m not talking about that bullshit reality show that just got cancelled by FOX or NBC or WHO GIVES A SHIT. Was that even a real show? Did anybody watch it or did I just dream it up in a nightmare? Let me know please. The Utopia I’m talking about is an intense, twisted, violent, and darkly comic conspiracy thriller that recently wrapped it’s second (and sadly last) season on Britain’s Channel Four. It ended with many story lines still up in the air which is why I’m excited for the HBO remake. Maybe it’ll provide the answers we didn’t get. Regardless, it’s a show that demands attention and ends with an episode that is satisfying enough.
Here’s the pitch: Utopia concerns a group of nerds who are strangely obsessed with an underground graphic novel. The geeks consist of Ian, a bored IT guy, Becky, a pissed off young woman suffering from a deadly disease, Grant, a twelve year old boy far more resourceful than his age, and Wilson Wilson (his parents were idiots), a hacker obsessed with the usual sci-fi stuff like Star Trek and Wars. They meet in an online community, agree to to hang out and talk about their favorite comic book, called The Utopia Experiments, and discover that the comic is a desired by a group of government agents who call themselves The Network. When these four would-be heroes come across a sequel to the comic, they find themselves the unwitting targets of a group of people who will do anything to get their hands on the manuscript. What exactly The Network is after and what their ultimate goals are I’ll leave for you to discover. I’ll just say that The Network is one of those great villains with good intentions who have lost sight of their ultimate goal. They’re a a lot like the Nazis: they want to save the world and make it a better place but their methods have become evil, dark, and misguided. Still, it’s hard to not at least understand their point of view on a fundamental level even if we abhor their actions.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the many pleasures of Utopia is the way it handles it’s twists and turns. Every episode ends with a major revelation that always feels earned. This is a show that doesn’t cheat. It doesn’t throw twist after twist in our direction just for the sake of it. Each twist is part of a greater whole and the more we learn, the more unease we feel. This is a show brimming with topical and frightening ideas and it explores them in a manner that most American shows would be afraid to touch with a fifty foot pole.
Here’s an example of it’s fearlessness. We meet two agents of The Network in the series’ first scene. They are Lee and Arby. Arby is played by Kill List’s Neil Maskell and he creates one of the most unique villains to ever appear on a television screen. When Arby discovers that the young boy, Grant (we’ll talk more about him in a minute) has a copy of the second manuscript, he pays a visit to to the boy’s school. And in one of the most brutal sequences I’ve ever seen, Arby proceeds to shoot teachers and students. The Network blames the murders on poor Grant, making our young hero into the most wanted person in the country. It’s a terrifying plot development that could have easily been used as cheap exploitation but think about it: if you ran an all-powerful network of spies and assassins and needed to find a boy in the shortest amount of time possible, wouldn’t these actions make sense? The kid is suddenly on every news station in the country and every police officer is looking for him. Utopia wants to scare you and show you how ruthless evil conspiracy groups would be if they actually existed. It succeeds even though many people in Britain protested this development.They didn’t understand that this is an adult drama with ideas that are meant to be troubling and disturbing rather than shocking. We’re not supposed to just feel shock and revulsion as we watch a man gun down teachers and children; we’re meant to also understand and fear the idea of a secret society with limitless power.
That being said, I should mention that school shootings are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence in Utopia. This is not a show for the faint of heart. The violence is relentless. It’s not so over the top it becomes fun like in Spartacus or in some Game of Throne’s episodes. No, this violence hurts and stings. But it’s meant to. It’s not there just to shake you or disturb you; it’s there to serve a point. To take the idea of vast conspiracies and show how terrifying they would be if they really existed. To show how far certain characters are willing to go for the sake of what they believe in. And to keep you on the edge of your seat and remind you that no one is ever safe.
I’m making the show sound more disturbing than it is. It’s also frequently hilarious, but in a darkly comic way. Take the season two scene where an agent of The Network is forced to kill somebody unexpectedly. He calls his superiors and they ask if it can be made to look like a suicide. The agents shrugs and says, “I guess so” before discovering that his victim is still alive and spilling blood all over an office building. He puts the phone down, finishes the man off by beating him with a fire extinguisher, and then picks up the phone to say this to his bosses: “Yeah, suicide won’t work.” It’s a scene that is vicious and intense but also bizarrely funny, like a farce gone wrong. Utopia walks this line throughout it’s entire run and this makes some of the violent sequences much more palpable.
What also helps the show are the well-written, well defined characters. Ian, the IT guy, serves as a relatable every man. He’s bored with his job and wants an adventure. Who among us can’t relate to that? Then there’s Becky, whose foul mouth and attitude get her through many a tough situation. Wilson Wilson is a perfectly rendered geek; a tribute to nerd culture without being a cheap send up of it. But the best of the heroes is twelve year old Grant. Children are frequently not written well on TV shows. Take a look at the high schoolers of The Leftovers for proof of that. They never felt like real people. They felt like a 50 year old man’s idea of how teenagers would behave. Not the case with Grant. He’s smart as a whip but speaks the way you’d expect a twelve year old punk to speak. The show lets him curse up a storm and if you find that offensive, you’ve obviously never met a twelve year old. They’re obnoxious, know it all assholes, who you can’t hep but root for because goshdarnit, you were just like them at some point in your life.
The villains are equally complex and interesting. I cannot overstate how good Neil Maskell is as Arby, the slow talking, flat footed chief hitman of The Network. This man murders children in cold blood and yet, you find yourself rooting for and sympathizing with him. He’s little more than a product of the world he was brought up in and eventually winds up fighting against it in the only way he knows how. It’s a fascinating arc as we gradually learn that he is a modern version of Frankenstein’s monster; born out of madness and trapped by the ideas of his demented creators. To say more about the other villains would give way too much so I’ll just say that they’re all as complex and fascinating as Arby. So much so that when one of the four heroes turns to their side, we fully understand why.
If it sounds like I’m being oblique when describing certain aspects of the show, that’s only because Utopia is so full of genuine surprises that I don’t want to spoil them. You need to discover them for yourself. There are two seasons of six episodes each so it’s really not a lot to catch up on. I have high hopes for the remake because of the talent involved and because I expect it will answer some of the questions the British version left open. Still, watch the original. I haven’t even gotten into the brilliant cinematography on display. Utopia uses colors with all the skill of a master painter. Nearly every shot is interesting. And so are the characters, ideas, and themes. So get over your misguided resentment and give this masterpiece a shot. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything quite like it.