Utopia 1.01 ReviewA tv review article by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy
Paul Brian McCoy: On Tuesday, January 15, the UK's Channel 4 premiered a new television series from the co-creator/co-writer of Pulling, Dennis Kelly called Utopia. It follows three (or four) fans of a mysterious graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, who stumble across the unpublished manuscript for the second issue. But there's a shadowy group of killers also looking for the manuscript.
From there, things get a little bizarre.
As we haven't discussed this beforehand, I have no idea how you took to this, Kelvin. What were your initial impressions?
Kelvin Green: "Bizarre" is right. I don't know if I enjoyed the first episode, but I definitely found it odd and interesting. Everything about it seemed to be designed to unsettle the viewer.
Sometimes in the most subtle ways.
Paul: I have to admit, as a fan of the bizarre and unsettling I was hooked from the opening few shots in the opening scene. By the time the titles came up, I was a fan. It was going to have to work to drive me away.
For those who haven't seen it (SPOILER ALERT), the show opens in a comic shop called Doomsday Comics. It's closing time and there are only a couple of people still milling about.
It's already been sold to someone else, but that's okay. Lee and Arby get the contact information for the buyer and proceed to murder everyone in the store - including a small child - and make it look like a gas leak was responsible.
Outside, a fellow in a rabbit suit stands around, selling something or handing out pamphlets, I think, in slow motion as the creepy-but-infectious theme music begins to play and the word UTOPIA appears across the screen.
It was disturbing, but so engaging I couldn't look away.
Kelvin: I admit I was hooked from that moment too.
Slow, almost calm violence, a little bit of humour in the killers' banter with each other -- almost like a married couple -- weird imagery in the rabbit suit, then that odd, odd music.
Yes, as starts go, it couldn't be much better.
Paul: And that enigmatic question: "Where is Jessica Hyde?" over and over. Softly, almost politely, but with an edge of patience being lost.
Kelvin: Like a parent with a small child, which given the way Arby is like a child himself, makes it even odder.
Paul: Yeah, Arby's a strange one – more internal and awkward, while Lee is more flamboyant and likeable with his smile and blue suit. Arby's definitely in charge but they're both remorseless killers.
But even more than the plot or the performances, the direction of that opening scene really took hold of me.
Kelvin: Yes, the episode was put together so very well. As I mentioned, everything seemed to be designed to create this weird, unsettling feel.
Paul: The director, Marc Munden (who's known for historical dramas like Vanity Fair, The Devil's Whore, and The Crimson Petal and the White), takes great pains to set up every shot in a very cinematic way that utilizes the sets to frame action and break up the screen into quadrants.
He uses the rows in the comic shop to break up the scene, focusing on what goes on underneath for a horizontal split of the space, but at the same time all the walls are covered with crossing lines and rows of bagged and boarded comics that help to create a sense of claustrophobia.
It's just fantastic work.
All the interiors in this episode are like that - broken spaces isolated and fragmented by the architecture of the scene.
Kelvin: Yes, even in external shots he seemed to manage to make things seem cramped and close.
Paul: Again, a lot of those exteriors fill the screen with images that are also boxed off, like Bejan's (Mark Stobbart) apartment building in that slo-mo shot of him falling to his death.
But then there are those beautiful little contrast shots of the clouds in the sky that are wide open and seem to be implying the desire to escape in the characters as they stare off into the distance.
I think I may be in love with this show.
Kelvin: Even the shots of the sky seemed cramped somehow. I'm no expert, but it seemed to be something to do with the lighting, as if everything had a dark filter on it, even the skies.
It reminded me of the way the sky looks during an eclipse.
Paul: Interesting! I hadn't the eclipse connection, but now that you mention it, I know what you mean.
Not that it was darker, per se, but the edges are more distinct. The colors are slightly unnatural. Vivid at times, murky at times.
Kelvin: Yes, the contrast was set to extremes.
Paul: There are times when the colors just pop off the screen in a way that reminded me of Pushing Daisies (although I've only seen a couple of episodes to be honest).
That and then the way the characters interacted made me think Twin Peaks.
If we have to make points of reference readers might recognize...
Kelvin: It's odd, but it felt dated to me. Or rather it felt very much of its time, except its time was the early to mid-90's.
Paul: Did you ever see the mini-series Wild Palms that Oliver Stone produced in 93?
Kelvin: Yes! That is what it reminded me of.
There was this whole weird phase in pop culture in the time just after Twin Peaks, and Utopia, to me, felt like it had come from that time, despite being very modern.
Paul: I agree entirely. Especially with that sharp blue suit Lee wears and his white shoes. I love that look and how it almost serves as a visual "strange attractor" around which all the other weirdness can orbit around without being directly connected.
I don't know if that makes sense at all, but in my head it does.
Kelvin: No, it makes sense, but we probably need an image here so the readers can catch up!
Kelvin: Lee looks like he's wandered out of a band in 1991 or something.
Paul: I want that suit.
Kelvin: He does look snazzy in it. A contrast to slobbish Arby.
Paul: Yeah, they're an odd pair all around.
Kelvin: They reminded me of the assassins in the BBC's Neverwhere.
Paul: I need to see that someday.
I wonder though, if I'd find Arby so unnerving if I hadn't seen Kill List.
Kelvin: It took me a bit to place where I'd seen Maskell before.
I think the quiet threat is something he does well, as I remember it in Kill List too, although with less of that child-like edge that he brought in here.
Paul: I think it was the almost autistic way he behaves here that kept me from placing him at first. It's an excellent, underplayed performance.
Kelvin: It really is.
Paul: There was a Kill List reunion once Michael Smiley showed up as Detective Reynolds! I giggled the moment he appeared on-screen.
Kelvin: I still think of him as Tyres, so I giggled for a different reason.
Paul: Well, that too.
I always get a little happier when he shows up in a show or film.
Kelvin: Me too.
"You lucky people!"
I was a little sad to see him go so quickly. But that was a great moment between Arby and Reynolds. It really established the quiet threat that Arby brings to the show.
Plus, it was horrifying in an "I don't want to go out into the world by myself ever again" kind of way.
Kelvin: It was.
Kelvin: There was one that made me laugh.
Paul: Simon Farnaby as the PhD director?
Paul: Me too! That hair! I'm not used to seeing him with hair.
Kelvin: From Horrible Histories to that.
Paul: I know him from Mighty Boosh and Bunny and the Bull.
Kelvin: I'm not used to him not being dressed as a historical figure and singing a song.
Paul: Oh shit. I've gotta start watching Horrible Histories, then.
Kelvin: It is brilliant.
The best British comedy in a long time, and it's an educational programme for children. Sort of how The Daily Show is America's best news show.
Paul: Yeah, I need to get on that.
So what about the main cast? Impressions?
Kelvin: Yes, we've talked about how good the villains and minor characters were, but that's not to say that the main cast weren't good.
It was good to see Nathan Stewart-Jarrett again so soon after his Misfits departure.
Paul: It was. And Dr. Girlfriend and I had just watched Hunderby a week or two ago, so it was nice to see Alexandra Roach again already.
I think my favorite performance amongst the heroes, though, was Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson. But I guess that's to be expected.
Kelvin: Yes, he did a good job with that role, and it was written well too. A lesser script would have made him more of a comedy figure, and while that was there, there was more to him than that.
What is it with the UK shows I love messing with my favorite characters' eyes? First The Fades, now this...
Kelvin: Of all the protagonists, it seemed as if Akhtar's Wilson Wilson was the one with the strongest morals, the one investigating the conspiracy because it was the right thing to do. I liked that side.
True to the stereotype of the conspiracy nut, but with more depth.
Paul: And then, thematically, because he has the clearest vision of what's really going on, he loses his sight.
I say "loses" but that's putting it mildly.
Kelvin: Oh, that's good. I didn't pick up on that.
Paul: Did you notice that each of the heroes have family issues, living with parents, or just losing their parents? That was an interesting touch.
Kelvin: Yes indeed.
Paul: Especially as they're all now forced to leave the nest and grow up in a scary new world.
Kelvin: A very scary world.
Paul: I'm also really liking Oliver Woollford as Grant, bringing a nice little Dane from the Invisibles feel to the show.
Kelvin: I hadn't made that connection. Yes, I liked the way that he's separated from the rest of the gang not only by the plot so far, but also by his age.
Paul: Naming him Grant jumped out at me.
Kelvin: I've not checked on the geek credentials of the writers, I must admit.
I was a bit worried when I saw the promotional materials refer to graphic novels and the like, as I remember a similar Channel 4 miniseries in the 90's about video games that seemed to be written by someone who'd heard about video games but had never seen one. Utopia seemed to treat the medium and the people who enjoy it with an even hand.
Paul: Agreed. I wasn't really excited about this because of that inherent dread.
So, there's another entire plot going on in the show that we haven't mentioned at all yet. There's something shady going on at the Department of Health.
I'm assuming that thread will tie in to the prophetic aspect of the Utopia manuscript?
Kelvin: I think so.
Paul: Which we also haven't really mentioned! There's a lot of stuff going on in this first episode!
Kelvin: Yes. The manuscript everyone is after appears to have predicted the appearance of a genetic disease. Meanwhile, the Department of Health seems to be being manipulated by foreign -- Russian? -- interests.
The writer of the graphic novel himself was a scientist working for a pharmaceutical firm.
It's a nice, thick jumble of plot threads.
Paul: Paul Higgins plays Dept. of Health patsy Michael Dugdale with a perfect sense of anguish, distraction, and desperation. His scenes were some of the most emotionally painful to watch. He nailed this character.
Again, the direction helped to really isolate him and emphasize that trapped feeling.
Kelvin: He did. You felt the sense of danger or oddness in other scenes, but only in his did you feel this enormous sense of misery.
Paul: Misery! Exactly.
Kelvin: Yes, you're right. He was almost always alone, and even in that briefing scene his mind was elsewhere so he was sort of alone.
Then, in the later scene with the rest of the staff, they all left as soon as he entered the shot.
Paul: And he's asked to stay behind as everyone leaves when the new boss takes over. Plus, he's constantly framed in shots with doors or windows cutting him off from the rest of the image.
Kelvin: It is very well made isn't it?
Paul: It's fecking brilliant.
Kelvin: It will stand up to repeated viewing, I think.
Paul: I've already watched the first episode twice. Now, after talking about it, I'm ready to watch it again!
Kelvin: This is why I'm looking forward to watching the whole series. I can't say I enjoyed the first episode as such, but it was so well-crafted, and so interesting, that I'm eager to see more.
Paul: The little character bits are also a big part of what I loved about it. Wilson Wilson's relationship with his dad; Ian and Becky's clumsy and realistic attempt at sex (having to undo his tie to get his shirt off made me laugh out loud), Grant's stepping up to the owner of the car he was trying to steal...
Hell, Grant's teacher not recognizing him was a very strong touch, too.
Revealing character through interactions, rather than having everything spelled out in poorly placed exposition.
I really haven't been as excited about a new show since The Fades appeared like a brief little burst of sunshine before being secreted away by clouds.
Kelvin: Some of those scenes you mention were also quite funny, and I think they handled humour well in this. Even thought it was all quite dark, the creators have a good sense of absurdity and when it can turn to humour.
Paul: Yes! It wasn't outrageous comedy. It was real humor that developed out of the characters and the situations naturally. While also embracing absurdity, as you say.
Kelvin: Exactly. I was trying to think of times when other "weird" shows have done humour, and they tend to break with the tone to make jokes.
Even Twin Peaks didn't have the humour rise as a natural consequence of what was going on; it was more aware.
Paul: It was aware, but the best humor came from the character interactions.
Kelvin: That is true. I'm being a bit unfair perhaps.
Paul: No, you're right on target. Utopia is more subtle and polished than that.
Kelvin: I'd like to say it's a difference between British and American humour style, but I think that may be a stretch based on such a limited comparison!
Paul: I don't know. That's a valid argument, I think. Especially if you look at the comedy work of someone like Julia Davis, where the comedy is almost too dry and horrifying to laugh at. Almost.
Kelvin: Yes, that's a good point.
Paul: Or Christopher Morris. Or Charlie Brooker. My favorite British humor is much darker and more subtle than anything you get anywhere else.
Kelvin: On the US side, maybe Dexter is a show that gets closest?
Paul: Maybe. But even Dexter doesn't really embrace the humor so much as use it to punctuate things. It doesn't feel like a fundamental part of the creative act to me.
Todd Solondz films are the closest things I can think of off the top of my head.
Or David Lynch, of course, on the American side of the equation.
Kelvin: Solondz is a good pick, yes.
Paul: On TV I don't know if there's anything that equates. Maybe Louie.
Kelvin: Although I don't see Solondz going for the outright fantasy of something like Utopia.
Paul: No, that's true. But some of his fantasy sequences in his films touch on that absurdly dark and borderline unfunny/disturbing.
Kelvin: I've seen comparisons between Utopia and The Killing -- the proper version -- and that I can see. Sarah Lund's lack of social skills often raised a chuckle even during dark moment; as intended, I think.
Paul: That's true.
Although Utopia has that touch of the fantastic built into the very fabric of the show, not just in the plot, but also the look and feel. The Killing is so overwhelming realistic that those little character quirks stand out and help get the viewer though the darkness. They humanize.
In Utopia, it feels like even the lighter bits are dangerous and a little uneasy.
Kelvin: That's true. Utopia has the weird running right through it, in a way that The Killing doesn't. It's quite unique.
Paul: Breaking Bad sometimes leans this way, especially in earlier seasons. There's some nicely experimental storytelling and direction going on there still.
Kelvin: Ah, I've only ever seen a couple of episodes of that.
Paul: It's beautifully done. There's no fantastic element like the prophetic comic book in Utopia, but it might come the closest to what we're talking about. That dark, weird, absurd-but-natural humor in its DNA.
Kelvin: One aspect that I don't think came through as well as it could was the apocalyptic stuff. We got bits and pieces of dialogue that said that the world was on the brink of disaster, but we didn't see it.
For budget reasons, I'd imagine.
Paul: True. There were only two things in the first episode that bothered me. That lack of visual examples showing the world's state was one. The other was the quick moving past the detail that Becky was arrested for a trumped up child porn thing just like Ian was falsely arrested for child rape.
We got to watch Ian go through his incarceration (in another amazingly directed/edited/acted sequence that made me fall even more in love with the show), but we have no details about what happened with her. How did she get out?
Kelvin: Ah yes. Ian had an alibi, but Becky couldn't have one, so how did she get away? I can see why they didn't want to more or less repeat the same sequence of events, as they had a lot to get through, but they could have done a better job.
Paul: I'm hoping it was an intentional move that will be explained later or have more impact as the story goes on.
It did feel like a misstep, though.
Kelvin: I half suspect that Becky wasn't arrested at all, and that she's up to something.
Paul: It was creepy that whoever initiated Ian's arrest had his DNA somehow. I guess that ties back to that disturbing little scene where Arby and Lee take the blood sample where Grant cut himself escaping.
Kelvin: Yes, the extent of the conspiracy's power and influence is a bit far-fetched, but I'm willing to let it go.
Paul: I can't wait for the next episode! I need more!
I wonder if that mention of the devil showing up in the comic as an animal-human hybrid - usually a rabbit - will come into play.
Kelvin: I assume it must.
Paul: There was the fellow in the rabbit suit at the beginning, but that was almost outside the narrative flow of the story.
Kelvin: The meaning of the title is obscure at this point too.
Paul: Yup. I don't even want to guess at this point. I have an idea or two, but it's too early to really tell.
Kelvin: I'm thinking a plague to wipe out a portion of humanity, with the survivors living in a "utopia". Hybrid DNA either lets them survive, or the plague is delivered or grown in hybrid animals.
Check back in a few weeks to see if I was right!
Paul: Oh, now I have to pitch in!
The whole "scientist who makes a deal with the devil" aspect is almost surely autobiographical with the Big Pharmi company playing the devil. The Utopia Experiment being something exactly like you mention.
Being involved either drove him mad or he was put away by the Powers Behind it All.
Kelvin: I reckon so.
Paul: I don't like making predictions, even if they're fairly safe ones (mine, not yours - I like where your head is at on this one).
Kelvin: We shall see. I expect we'll see the scientist/graphic novelist at some point too.
Paul: I want to know who Jessica Hyde is! The tension is killing me!
Kelvin: Yes, a very well-handed cliffhanger. It was sort of inevitable that she'd turn up, but even so it was a tense scene.
Paul: Dr. Girlfriend and I both thought that was going to be Grant at the door at the end, but I was happily surprised. Keeping Grant on his own for at least a little while longer is a good idea.
He's the most vulnerable, but also maybe the most able.
Kelvin: Like Newt in Aliens.
Paul: Only Newt was more innocent. Grant is very much Dane in that first Invisibles arc. Maybe the closest to the killers themselves, morally.
Kelvin: Yes, you're right. He is Dane, isn't he? I suppose Utopia is another nail in the coffin of the BBC's Invisibles adaptation.
Paul: He just needs a Tom O'Bedlam to help him along.
So, how would you score this one then?
Kelvin: It was good start, and I had only minor quibbles. So 4.5, I think.
Paul: 4.5 is fair (although in my dark little heart I want to give it 5- that Becky thing puts me off it though - I hope it's justified down the road).
Any final thoughts?
Kelvin: I don't think so.
Paul: All right then. What is it they say? Mission Accomplished.
Utopia airs Tuesdays at 10:00 on Channel 4 in the UK.
Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, the Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.