The first thing you see when you start streaming Utopia on Amazon Prime is a disclaimer. It informs you that the show is a work of fiction not based on “real, related or current events”. How strange, you might ask. What could it mean?
In time you will find that, among other things, Utopia talks about a conspiracy taking place in a viral pandemic, after which the disclaimer changes to warn you that Utopia “it is not based on an actual pandemic or related events”. It is a show that has the terrible misfortune of being accidentally of this moment, and completely wrong about everything.
Utopia it also has the weight of being a remake of a real cult hit broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK. The British Utopia it was elegant, creepy, and charming in a way that still holds up ̵
The outlines of the new show are different, but its main rhythms are the same. It starts with a group of comic-obsessed fans called Dystopia – an obscure one-off piece that appears to have hidden in its pages the secrets of a vast conspiracy theory behind every major catastrophe in recent history. By connecting on the internet, they learn something that prompts them to finally meet in person for the first time: a sequel comic, Utopia, has been discovered and is for sale. Unfortunately for them, they’re not the only ones following him, and some of their competition is a bit on the killer side.
Put in the vernacular of 2020, it’s a bit like watching a show about QA non-believers. The series explores the idea – funny until a few years ago – of what it might be like if conspiracy theorists were right. Taking into account current events that he couldn’t possibly predict, the ironies pile up in a way that makes it difficult to take the show on its terms. It has become difficult to take the truth on its terms.
The American relationship with the difference between reality and fiction has completely eroded. Previously neutral institutions like the CDC have been co-opted for political purposes, advice from scientists and doctors sidelined during a pandemic, and open supporters of the QAnon illusion are winning the primary election. Saying that something is real takes more work than it ever has, if only because it requires us to anticipate and unmask countless nonsense claims about how the sky isn’t blue.
This does Utopia seem terribly naive in a way that is really no one’s fault, even though he can be criticized for having little to say of the erosion of truth and the fascination of conspiracy theories. (He seems more interested in beating male comic book nerds who take their favorite medium too seriously, using an opening scene to have a woman dress them up.) law, the disproportionate amount of power held by private companies and the way the language of “freedom” is used to garner popular support for underhanded ends.
However, everything is mostly flat, with characters failing to keep your attention even if they do shocking things. There is a parade of murders, dismemberments and torture in the early episodes of Utopia this is legitimately paralyzing, and there is so much to track that there is precious little time to really get to know one of his characters.
It’s shocking, then, when Ian (Dan Byrd), one of the main characters, jokes – It is funny? Since when? Another main crew member, Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop) is barely characterized beyond her chronic illness. In fact, of the main group of nerds that are over their heads, the only one who registers is Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), mainly to be more paranoid in a group of conspiracy theorists.
As this group becomes more and more involved in the conspiracy that seems more and more real, the players get bigger and more severe: agents of a secret program of trained assassins, the head of a pharmaceutical company (John Cusack), an agent of the Department by Homeland Security (Sonja Sohn). It goes, as they say, to the top.
And perhaps this is why Utopia it is so unsatisfactory: the charm of conspiracy theories is that there is a certain order in this chaos, that even if we are unhappy, it is because of the actions of a ruthless few who have exercised unfair control over us. Except, when it really exists, it’s no longer a conspiracy, it’s corruption and it happens in plain sight. All that hidden stuff, where do we put together newspaper clippings looking for Pepe Silvia? It is boring and completely useless. Evil is right there, in plain sight.