I can’t recall another show willing to go to such dark places without apologizing, and doing it in such beautiful technicolor. Imagine the love-child of Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel) and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), but with without the glee of the violence. There is humor in this series, but none of it focuses on the murder and mayhem. Perhaps a better pairing would be Anderson and Chan-wook Park (Stoker), but without the Gothic sensibility?
Let’s simplify: Bad things happen in this twisted and scarily logical, compelling series. A LOT of bad things. And, more terrifying, you understand all sides and their choices, not just accept them as possible. You may not agree with them, but a part of you cannot deny the arguments and the drives.
The creator and main writer, Dennis Kelly (Pulling), approaches this complicated story fearlessly. In series 1 he rolls out the mystery from an outsider’s perspective. At the top of series 2, he flips it around and provides the background for the other perspective. In fact, episode 2.1 is entirely a flashback provided with wonderful creativity. The rest of series 2 plays out and unwinds the great endeavor to an inevitable conclusion; one that feels both right and frustrating simultaneously. If there is any weakness to the second series, it is that you are so used to the extremes by that point, that it has less of an impact… or perhaps that is part of its genius?
In a collection of good performers, Neil Maskell may have surprised me the most. His mouth-breathing terror-on-legs in this series is in direct contrast to his emotional cop in Humans. It may simply be that I’d just finished watching Humans when I discovered this show, but the two performances are markedly different.
Alexandra Roach (Thirteenth Tale, Vicious) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits) each create turbulent individuals in addition to providing as close to a romantic core story as can exist in this plot. Alongside these two, Paul Higgins (Line of Duty) and Stephen Rea (The Honourable Woman) give us wonderful, bureaucratic pawns who are trying to make sense of their choices and their morality.
In a different kind of stand-out performance, Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Goldfish Memory) gets to have a great deal of fun in a pivotal role where she completely defines her own morality as gauged against “the greater good.” The math isn’t pretty.
At the top of series 2, Rose Leslie (Now is Good, Game of Thrones), as the younger Geraldine James (Robot Overlords), was also a great surprise. Both women having created intensely emotional, but coldly calculating characters that feel very much like the same person. And she isn’t one you want to meet in a dark alley.
You may have noticed that morality plays heavily in my comments. Amorality, to be honest. Most shows have “evil” people doing awful things… and just as often doing stupid things to soften their emotional impact or help get them caught. Utopia, however, makes its characters stay true to their thinking, which breeds a level of amorality I’ve never really seen in a show before. They aren’t corrupt, as happens in most conspiracy plots. Those in charge are people who believe, and who know exactly what they’re doing and do it anyway, not because they are sociopaths (though an argument could be made), but because they believe the needs transcend morality. They are aware of the cost and take it on. It is a recurring conversation and one that will make you twitch because it is so close to the bone.
There are other great performances as well, but the real star of this show is the story and the production work. It is cinematic in the extreme, with wide shots and intense, carefully appointed frames that take in beautiful prepared scenes. The sound work is also both subtle and intriguing. The willingness to avoid typical TV plots and follow the real motivations of its characters as they lead down the rabbit hole to truly amoral moments, and, to loop this fully back to the top, the fact that you can understand the choices is probably the most chilling part of this series. It forces you to follow the logical chain of understanding until you are so far past your normal boundaries that it cannot help but have impact.
Utopia is something unique and something darkly wonderful on the small screen. It may not be a comfortable watch, or even a pleasant one at times, but it is entertaining and thought provoking. Make the time.