Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole: Welcome to Utopia

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on January 29, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde, in Channel 4's Utopia

A mysterious and possibly prophetic graphic novel, two brightly-dressed killers armed with small gas canisters and bottles of bleach, the suggestion of an ever-diminishing global food supply, four unlikely allies thrust into a worldwide conspiracy because of an online comic book forum: welcome to Channel 4’s Utopia – a pre-apocalyptic conspiracy thriller from the pen of playwright and TV writer Dennis Kelly.

Writing about television comes with its own unique challenges: the best TV shows tell long, even open-ended stories, and it is often difficult to assess them while they’re still in progress.  As I sit down to write this, I’m still questioning whether it would perhaps be better to wait until Utopia’s full season has played out in its entirety. (It’s now aired only two of its promised six episodes, after all.) Waiting however comes with its own risks: I already regret, for example, not writing immediately about the first episode of ABC’s now-cancelled Last Resort. (To be candid, I have also regretted weighing in too soon. See A Gifted Man, where almost everything that was so impressed me in the pilot episode made the series frustrating and tedious by the middle of its first, and thankfully only, season.) Sometimes, as with Last Resort, a first episode is so unprecedented, so “fall off your seat” shocking, that you can’t stop talking about for the rest of the week. Visually arresting, unrepentantly violent, and darkly funny, Utopia is like nothing else currently on television. From its opening scene, you already know you’re seeing something entirely new.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Ian
Premiering on January 15th in the UK, Utopia is already the most ambitious series Channel 4 has ever broadcast, even more ambitious than any series produced for E4, the channel’s digital sibling responsible for favourites like Misfits, Skins, and The Inbetweeners. Kelly, most famous for co-creating the BBC 3 comedy Pulling, also wrote the book for Matilda the Musical, a critically acclaimed adaptation of Roald Dahl children’s novel which demonstrated Kelly’s skill for writing to young lead actors, a talent wholly on display in Utopia.

Utopia is set in a world almost, but not quite, our own. Unbeknownst to most of its population, a crisis lurks around the corner – the dark details of which appear to have been foretold on the pages of a comic book called The Utopia Experiments, published in the mid-80s. The comic has acquired a cult following, and as word of the recently unearthed manuscript of a fabled second volume materializes on the book’s online discussion forum, a handful of unsuspecting fans decide to meet for the first time. Now in the sights of The Network, the shadowy non-governmental organization behind the imminent global threat, the lives of our four heroes quickly unravel.

The show quickly introduces to its main players: Becky (Alexandra Roach, Iron Lady), a former medical student turned doctoral candidate; Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar, Four Lions), a paranoid conspiracy geek, and Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Misfits), an 28-year-old IT wonk who still lives his mother, and Grant (Oliver Woollford), a troubled 11-year-old boy. They are soon joined by the mysterious Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), who with a sugary sweet voice and kick-ass attitude blows into their lives like an explosive hybrid of Sarah Connor and Ramona Flowers: “Come with me now or you’ll all die.”

Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson
Stewart-Jarrett and Roach both shine, with a chemistry that brings relief to the story’s breakneck intensity from the first moment their two characters meet. And Akhtar’s Wilson Wilson, a survivalist and conspiracy geek whose worst paranoid fantasies seem to pale in comparison to the world he’s fallen into, serves as one of the show’s only sources of traditional humour – and considering Wilson is the victim of the first episode’s most disturbing scenes of torture, this should tell you a lot about the overall tone of the show! (One quick caveat on that subject: the most explicit of Utopia’s violence is, to the show’s credit, almost impossible to watch without squirming. I should confess that I had to look away during that torture sequence. FYI: it didn’t help much. The scene sounds almost as disturbing as it looks.)

The dialogue is often surprisingly straightforward and unambiguous. Utopia is populated by people who actually answer questions when they’re asked them directly, and (at least in the first two episodes) characters are rarely not what they appear to be. Jessica Hyde herself (whose enigmatic identity frames much of the first episode) seems almost incapable of dissembling. She is beyond coyness, revealing who she is and what her plans are unceremoniously just 15 minutes into the second hour – and the show actually bothers to corroborate most of the details of her story before the episode ends!

New characters are introduced in almost every scene, and often just as quickly (and violently) dispatched. The narrative flipside of the disturbing ease with which the show and its many players disposes of life means the story cleans itself up as it moves forward, always forward. You feel by the end of the second episode that you may never see the same set twice. This forward rush – which leaves no small number of bodies in its wake – gives the show a pulp fiction energy and a kind of urgent clarity.

Alexandra Roach as Becky
The details of the conspiracy are complicated but relatively unembroidered, making the unfolding of the mystery not so much confusing as it is simply overwhelming in detail – paralleling for the audience the experience of its heroes as they fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.  Information comes down in waves. Details are dumped on us just as they are dumped on our protagonists: names, scientific facts, historical and political specifics. There’s no way for them to keep up, and no reason for us to try. As the depths of the conspiracy unfold it is less about ambiguity than about the revelation of new and richer layers, less concerned with pulling out rugs (in the Lost vein), than about, as Wilson Wilson puts, “opening up a door.” In that, it is rather reminiscent of the later seasons of Fringe: a big story with an emotional realism that belies its unbelievable frame.

The surreal visuals and labyrinthine complexity of the plot are kept in line by relationships which continue to bring us back to a human reality: Wilson Wilson’s concern for a friend he’d only ever interacted with online; Becky and Ian’s immediate sexual chemistry; young Grant and Alice, the surprisingly self-possessed schoolgirl with whom he forms a rapid connection. No doubt these relations are also new threats in such a dangerous world, but, as the rest of that world spins further into chaos, they give viewers solace and grounding.

With barely a handful of spoken dialogue in those first two hours, 11-year-old Grant Leetham (played by the 14-year-old Woollford) is a large part what makes the show so watchable, in spite of the nightmarish scenarios it portrays. Grant is a survivor – a juvenile delinquent with a troubled home life, but possessing a powerful self-awareness and survival instinct. He’s smart, and he’s curious, and, like most of the denizens of this broken Utopia, surprisingly human.  They're all survivors in their own ways: Grant, Wilson, Ian, Becky, even Michael, the miserable blackmailed government employee. They may be pawns of a larger conspiracy, but they aren’t slaves to the
story, and they rarely seem to do what you would expect them to do.

Oliver Woollford as Grant
We are thankfully long past an era when ambitious television reaches to the movie to signal its ambitions. No doubt, Utopia would seem to be doing that with its choice of aspect ratio, opting for the underused cinematic 21:9 aspect ratio instead of the current HDTV norm of 16:9. But the letterbox framing has the effect of calling attention to the visuals as a kind of framed panel, and combined with the heightened colours and compositions of director Marc Munden’s camerawork, It evokes the page of a graphic novel more than the big screen. Though not itself adapted from a graphic novel, perhaps the comic book aesthetic is really the best way to describe it. Every scene seems deliberately framed, and the dialogue is often terse and multivalent.

The third episode of Utopia airs tonight on Channel 4, with its final episode airing on February 19. As I write this, I have no idea where the story will take us – but this kind of anticipation and uncertainty is exactly what watching broadcast television should be like. It’s not even clear whether or not the show is intended as a one-off miniseries or if it will come back for another season. (This isn’t unusual for a British series – with their shorter seasons and a more irregular broadcast schedule, UK networks can opt rather late to bring a show back without having to lock actors and writers into long-term contracts from the beginning.)  I’m not sure if I get a vote, but if anyone at Channel 4 is listening, count me in.