Review: Utopia Season 1 (2020)
Amazon's first season of Utopia is an interesting clusterfuck that's equally engaging and disappointing. Its very identity is mired in being an American reproduction of what is by all reports a superior UK show from 2013, complicated by the production's inability to balance what it is exactly. It's a conspiracy thriller that wants to be a dark comedy while also being drama and absorbing some of that comic book media marketability, but in the end these conflicting aspects start to detract the show from itself. It also has the unfortunate timing of being a story about pandemics during a pandemic, but considering it's been in production for a while their alternate choice was to sit on the release and lose money.
Utopia starts out with an incredibly engaging premise, but the strength of its core plot device is eroded away by the very conspiracy revelations that the device creates. These revelations are not in themselves bad storytelling but just disappointing as they slowly bleed out what makes the concept so engaging.
The core push of the series is that an unproduced manuscript for a comic called Utopia is discovered. It's a sequel to a book called Dystopia, which in the years since its release has become a cult sensation shrouded in mystery. As things are set up, it's revealed that many people believe Dystopia was a warning, a prophetic hotspot of conspiratorial revelations that warns of a range of deadly viruses being spread. As word of the found manuscript is spread (the buyers don't know what they have but think they can make money, announcing the comic pages for sale over the internet), we're introduced to a band of online friends who all want an opportunity to view the work for various reasons (but generally to discover what new prophecies the book may foretell).
As we progress, various scenes do provide evidence that the original book was rife with legit metaphors and imagery that foretold some of the worst outbreaks in modern history. This is where I really thought they had a great concept as the design of the comic as the trippy nightmare ramblings of a messiah had a lot of potential. This is all lent credence as a pair of odd murderers also set out to obtain the manuscript, a path that leads them to the core cast of characters.
As the scope of the mystery starts to show itself and the murderers begin their violent erasure of anyone who has seen the manuscript, the conspiracy deepens as it's revealed that the heroine of the comic, Jessica Hyde, actually exists.
Which is a really great hook, brought to life by a great performance by Sasha Lane. It's just too bad that the character is almost completely irredeemable. She's the core example of one of the problems with the production, which is that the story is overcrowded with unsympathetic characters. While most of the characters are not outright hateful, the majority come off as apathetic, selfish, unhinged, or just obnoxious. And while those are all interesting traits, it makes it a little difficult to care about the characters over the plot. And as the plot starts to unravel the onion layers of the conspiracy, you end up wishing you weren't rooting for a murderer. Or that maybe the plot would treat the comic as a character at least, instead of it eventually feeling like a McGuffin that was just told it was the star of the show.
On the subject of the comic, all of the art was done by João Ruas, one of the artists to take over the cover art duties on Vertigo's Fables after the departure of James Jean. This was a brilliant choice on the art direction as it becomes a cohesive voice within the narrative of the entire show. From the opening sequence to the ending credits, the audience is influenced by the nightmarish fairy tale quality of Ruas' images as they define the tone of the conspiracy and the dementia hidden at the core of this world.
Now disregarding any of the logistical realities behind how this comic was produced and spread among nerds worldwide in the context of this reality (like say, why didn't the shadowy organization kill people with the release of the first book?), the comic as the plot device is fascinating as it almost gives a certain sense of magical realism to the story. Our characters pour over the pages time and time again, trying to interpret every possible line of art in the hopes of discovering the secrets of the future. As we progress though, the secrets almost become mundane, and the use of the manuscript seems lazy at times. Sometimes you can imagine a few of the writers meetings going a little like, "We need this new character to be useful, so we'll have our established characters who have spent years of their lives translating this artistic language completely gloss over obvious things so that the new guy has something to point out in the script."
I suppose it could have been worse, and like the ever expanding mysteries of 'Lost' the whole story could have veered into a cluttered mess of nonsense.
None of this actually takes away from the mystery of the comic though, which speaks volumes about how visual narratives can creep in and hotwire us to focus on mythology and metaphor. You could argue that Dystopia/Utopia are characters already due to how much time and focus are dedicated to them, but there was just enough of a lack of effort for that to manifest properly. It also becomes clear that they only commissioned a certain amount of pages that don't tell a clear linear narrative (although they speak of one in Dystopia, but that would have probably cost a few extra thousand dollars to be produced). I would kill for an actual expanded comic/artbook so as to better appreciate Ruas' work on the project, but we can only hope.
I guess we should also talk briefly of the violence and torture in the show.
I suppose I'm fairly desensitized at this point (considering how much I loved Meatball Machine, I guess I have to be), but nothing really took me aback. I guess that's more telling of me, after a prolonged scene featuring the abuse of a main characters eyeball, but what I found more disturbing was the moral ambiguity issues and a lack of consequences. The villains are villains, and we know they deserve their comeuppance. On the other side of the equation though, our heroine Jessica Hyde murders a main character solely because she believes there can only be one leader among our group of protagonists. The other characters are forced to live with their dead friend's body for a chunk of time as a reminder, but the trauma of that event seems to fade into the background by the end of the season. Which to a point is understandable considering all that happens, but I kept expecting and hoping someone would remember the callousness of Hyde's actions instead of giving her hugs and well wishes towards the end.
Torture scenes aside, yes there are plenty of gun fights and knife slashings, but I wouldn't exactly place it in the same cart as fellow Amazon series the Boys. Maybe a bit Tarantino-ish as there is some decent bloodletting. So if you're not in the mood for that stuff, cool and understandable, but I generally thought that the critique of too much violence was kind of meh.
Oh, before I forget, John Cusack is great throughout, and it is worth watching just for him.
On a final note, there's a scene at the geek convention in episode 1 where one of the characters berates a group of fanboys for their masturbatory nature and how they, "Tricked the world into believing that comic books were serious fucking literature." Hey, I'm just as tired about the same thing to a degree, but also comics as a medium are legit art. Maybe don't bite the hand that's feeding ya in your genre thriller that's hinged around a comic book? I understood where the anger was truly directed and agree with it, but it was a messy shotgun blast of a statement.
As I said, there are times where the show really doesn't seem to know what it wants to be, so it tries too hard to be a bit of everything. The production value is great, the acting is solid, and there are some really engaging ideas in play throughout the story. Just expect some cracks in the facade of this conspiracy.