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RERUN REVIEW: Utopia 1×01 “Episode 1”

A show taken before its time about a group of unlikely characters thrown together and on the run from the law; anything coming to mind? While Firefly continues to remain in people’s hearts and minds, there is another show of this description you should add to the list. Utopia, a Channel 4 show created by Dennis Kelly, started in 2013 and sadly cancelled after just 2 seasons. If you enjoy conspiracies and comics, this is definitely the show for you.

Utopia doesn’t give you any information before you need it, even if you want it. The series starts with a radio announcer talking about food shortages and riots, placing the show in future or an alternate timeline. The story is about the effect of The Utopia Experiments, a graphic novel, on five people’s lives. The graphic novel is written by Mark Dane, a mental institution patient who killed himself under suspicious circumstances after it was published. Becky, a grad student who wants to do her PhD on The Utopia Experiments, Ian, a bored corporate worker, Wilson Wilson, a paranoid techie who has wiped his existence from the Internet, and Grant, an 11 year old boy, are all unfortunate enough to be on The Utopia Experiments site live chat when someone comes on claiming to have the unpublished manuscript of the sequel to the graphic novel.

The four agree to meet up to see the manuscript. What they don’t know is that two hit men are also in pursuit of the manuscript, leaving carnage and bodies in their wake. Grant breaks into the apartment of the manuscript owner, using the meeting as an opportunity to burglarize. Instead, he witnesses the murder of the manuscript owner by the two hit men, steals the manuscript, and goes on the run. Becky and Ian are falsely accused of crimes while the two hit men find and question Wilson Wilson. Wilson escapes and the three of them hide out in Becky’s home. While all of this is going on, Michael Dugdale, a senior civil servant for the Department of Health, is being blackmailed to buy an unwanted vaccine by a shadowy organization, which leads to the Minister of Health resigning. I am always surprised by the amount of plot they manage to fit into every episode. The last five seconds of the episode has a twist that, if you weren’t hooked on the show before, you are now.

The episode left me with similar feelings of those of the characters: confusion and frustration over why all of this is happening. It is also not clear how all the story lines, especially Michael Dugdale’s, connect to one another. While there isn’t much of a payoff in the first episode besides the last five seconds, things are explained in later episodes, so you aren’t left hanging the entire season. I enjoy shows that don’t pander to the audience and keep you guessing, but this episode definitely pushed me to my limits on it. That being said, the show has definitely become one of my favorites the more I watched it.

As a warning, this episode, and show as a whole, is extremely violent and not afraid to show it. Within 55 seconds of the show, you see someone bludgeoned with a lead pipe. There is a scene 3/4th of the way through the episode involving chili peppers, sand, bleach, and a spoon that is the most cringe-inducing torture scene I have ever watched.

While there is a lot of violence, the show is beautifully shot. The best description I can think of is Guy Ritchie meets Wes Anderson. This seems like an extremely unlikely combination, but Utopia is gritty and violent like a Ritchie film, and has the color saturation and symmetrically visual composition of Anderson. The music is also fantastic and adds to the beautifully creepy vibe of the show.

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Utopia was created in 2013, so it’s not like the show is dated in any way. This review is more in the spirit of presenting a show you might have missed as opposed to nostalgia. However, I do think that it will hold up in the future due to the ever-increasing role of surveillance in our day-to-day lives, which plays an important role in the series. There is also an increasing mistrust in the transparency of the government and big pharmaceuticals, which is the main focus of the plot, and it is hard to resist a good conspiracy theory, no matter the date.

Though Utopia is no longer with us, you can watch both seasons of it on the Channel 4 website here or the first season on UK and Irish Netflix. And if you need any more incentive to start watching now, HBO has announced an adaptation of the series directed by David Fincher and written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. So buckle your seat belts and enjoy the wild ride.

Have you watched Utopia and are still mourning its demise? Excited/angry/skeptical/anxious about the American adaptation? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!

About the author

Kathleen McEneaney