Creator: Gillian Flynn
Directors: Toby Haynes, Susanna Fogel, Courtney Hunt, J.D. Dillard
Writers: Gillian Flynn, Ryan Enright, Ryan Parrott, Dennis Kelly
Cast: John Cusack, Rainn Wilson, Sasha Lane, Ashleigh LaThrop, Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd, Christopher Denham
Streaming Platform: Amazon Prime Video
When The Boys released last year, we got to see a polemic against our current pop-culture establishments. They turned heroes or ‘supes’ into power-grubbing, steroid-dependant egomaniacs. And it was rather timely as we had just witnessed the peak of our superhero-worshipping. Utopia, on Amazon Prime Video, eyed a similar theme by using the ideas of comics, conspiracies, and biowarfare as its fulcrum. This, too, is timely (although unintentionally) for 2020 — the time in history where a virus held millions of people hostage. There is a slight difference between these two shows, however. While the former is an amorally tough and anarchic drama, the latter is a heap of passionless baloney.
Think about a group or clique of conspiracy theorists that are so deep into their rabbit hole that they have a secret online server through which they communicate. There, they decode certain graphic novels that cryptically predicted human diseases years before they physicalised — the comics are aptly titled Dystopia and Utopia. This is essentially the premise of the show, and quite frankly, it is devilishly fascinating. It’s so niche that even anti-vaxxers would consider them far-fetched. Edgy conspiracy theories on acid? Sign me up! But, Utopia, after this point on, is in a constant narrative fugue where every subplot or tangent feels hideously forced and contrived.
Now, as I have not seen the original Channel 4 British series that this is based on, I cannot draw any comparisons. But in itself, Gillian Flynn’s series suffers from a crippling lack of depth and emotions. This does come as a shock because she has written some fine, hard-boiled mystery-thrillers — Sharp Objects and Gone Girl. This one, instead, felt like a mimicry of her style. It struggles to find its place between gritty realism and camp in a way that’s terribly off-putting. It is fiction drenched in barbaric amounts of blood, shrieking, “Believe me, I’m real!”
The unreleased comic Utopia, in the series, is a coveted object of desire amongst its cult fans. There is only one copy available and people are willing to bid thousands of dollars for a few pages of colourful illustrations. The conspiracy theorists want the comic for its prescience — to predict the next disease that will corrupt humanity. These characters have no motivation. They are only united by desire and later, inescapable circumstances. The “bad guys” (of course, they are the formidable corporations that control the country) they are rallying against, who also want the only copy of this comic, are spectacularly absurd. With some Thanos-like sensibility, their understanding of saving the planet means, first, doing some queasily warped things to it. Having seen a glut of this utilitarian, saviour-complex mantra, I wonder when my hair will grey.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong in regurgitating ideas done to death now — cinema has already slipped into this domain of repetition. But if a writer simply parrots existing concepts without any rhyme or reason of their own, their work will never end up rising beyond the clichés and tropes. This is that one place where you cannot weasel your way in by simply calling your work a “remake.” We are way past that.
At the heart of Utopia’s heartlessness lies its characters. The youngsters are so whacked out on their conspiracies that they have absolutely, and I mean absolutely, no qualms about jamming a bullet through someone’s skull. They abandoned their families, moral calculus, and common sense. They must have watched weeks worth of Law & Order to be this desensitised to blood and guts. However, what really made me want to pop an aspirin was the group’s leader — Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane, American Honey). She is tetchy and unduly murderous. Her character is the kind you’d see in a gory, pulpy fantasy written by a dude who decided to add a few women for the sake of gender diversity (fortunately though, she isn’t needlessly sexualised here). She is so hell-bent on exacting revenge that we do not get to see anything beneath her cold and unimpressive poker-face.
Any article on Utopia would be incomplete if it did not talk about its oozy violence. Calling it gratuitous would be euphemistic. It’s a pure and gross catfishing technique — to give you a reason to pay attention. The violence in the show is way too morally agnostic. And by that, I mean Utopia does not even bother obscuring any preexisting moral boundaries. It jumps straight into the savagery and sadism. In shows like Hannibal or The Boys, instances of characters erupting into blood-thirsty rage made sense. Their contexts demanded those kinds of reactions. Here, it’s excessive for the heck of it. It deliberately wants us to flinch when we see important people die. Its cry for attention is so shrill that it is practically begging us to binge it.
I wouldn’t mind the decadent torturing, murdering, and rampaging if the characters had cause for it. I wouldn’t mind seeing a significant character or two die if I cared for them. But for a show that unrepentantly exploits these cinematic tactics to gain our attention, I cannot make an exception for either of the two. If not for the debilitating lack of emotions and loony characters, Utopia could have at least made for a brief guilty pleasure.
Utopia Season 1 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.