In January 2013, Utopia season 1 premiered and by August 2014 it had been canceled. Like so many great series like Deadwood, Pushing Daisies and Firefly, it was axed before it’s time. But unlike a lot of other series out there, Utopia really pushed what could be aired on television. While many people have gone on rants about how Game of Thrones has gone too far or depicted acts of violence and rape in ways that are not savory (When is it savory?), Utopia doesn’t create a shock factor in what it wants to show the audience, instead it does something I found absolutely amazing, it wants to shock the characters in the series.
A lot of mainstream Television tries to create a hype and shock around events that occur in their shows, but it is always ultimately there to shock the audience to create a buzz. Utopia doesn’t feel that way at all, if anything, it doesn’t care what you think, the events that unfold are for the plot and not for you at home. It is brutal, cold and beautifully shot and well worth your time.
The series focuses on a band of outcasts, all with their own story. Becky is a student studying medicine who becomes ill and finds Utopia, a manuscript which foretells a conspiracy in which the government is creating viruses and mindlessly causing misery. Wilson is a 30-something who lives at home with his father who has scrubbed any footprint he has left on the Internet, Ian is in his late 20’s and living at home and finds Utopia interesting and although he is skeptical about any notion of conspiracy he still feels intrigued and Grant is a kid who adapts very well considering the level of murdering is in Die Hard proportions and comes from a broken home where he finds solace in the Utopia manuscripts.
This gang of outcast is the focus of an attack by an organization that is trying to find the last remaining manuscripts. They torture, kill, blackmail and manipulate anyone they want for their end goal, which I won’t reveal because if I discuss anything other than the first episode, the series would be spoiled. All I can say is that what many drag out and milk is not featured in this series at all.
The first thing that hit me about this series, is the opening shots at the beginning of most episodes. They are all long and expansive and create a weird feeling of openness that sadly is rarely given to the characters in the series. Throughout the series this shot is used very extensively and creates a sense of grandeur from shots that shouldn’t otherwise feel anything other than a transition.
The antagonist are extremely cold in every act of violence. They don’t enjoy it or dislike it, it is a job or task to them. While the people they torture and kill beg for their lives, the agents are very nonchalance about their actions and move on. This is explained in the series and they are not complete monsters, but there is a reason for their lack of sensitivity to killing and torturing. Of course it also goes back to the core element of what their organization is all about, utilitarianism. Every action is not taken out of emotion or greed, but rather it is a calculated and well articulated decision to allow the best possible outcome with the present situation as it presents itself. Hence, the idea of the ‘greater good’ comes to play and characters who would normally see murder as a vile act, suddenly turn into the very people that are chasing them.
Utopia created shock not for the sake of shaking the audience, but for the sake of the characters. The evil actions that the agents Arby and Lee perform spill over the screen and it can be hard at times to watch them. From torture, school shootings, children murdering people and human experimentation, this show pushed the boundaries for the purpose of good story-telling and not to make it on the news or tabloid newspaper. The best way to explain this in my mind is that the stunning visuals were counteracted by stunning violence. The violence isn’t pretty and there is no grandness about it, it is realistic in this way. While many other series have a body count that is intimidating, Utopia too has a high body count, the difference is that it is felt. Rather than having a barrage of edited shots of a hero shooting the bad guys and having a very strong soundtrack, Utopia best leaves the message clear, murder isn’t a grand act, it is quick, easy and it moves on.
The only other series that made me feel uncomfortable yet confounded as I did with Utopia, was Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. The series is a beautiful satire and the first episode was simply one of the most underrated piece of television out there and I don’t want to give too much away. There isn’t a lot of television out there that is taking strides in pushing the boundaries. Thankfully Netflix has taken a few series like Black Mirror and created some like Making a Murderer.
Ultimately Utopia was canceled because it didn’t get the ratings it needed. HBO was in discussion to make an American version but budgetary disagreements led the series never making it passed being a concept. The end of season 2 had answered most of the question from the two season but it left an entire new direction to take that was just as appealing as the last one. It is a shame that season 3 will not be made. At least there was are 2 seasons to enjoy that have pushed the boundaries.