The first thing you see when you begin streaming Utopia on Amazon Prime is a disclaimer. It informs you that the show is a work of fiction not based on “actual, related, or current events.” How strange, you might wonder. What could that mean?
In time, you will discover that, among other things, Utopia is about a conspiracy unfolding across a viral pandemic, after which the disclaimer changes to warn you that Utopia 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 all of it.
Utopia also bears the burden of being a remake of a bona fide cult hit that aired on Channel 4 in the UK. The British Utopia was stylish, unsettling, and arresting in a way that still holds up — were it to drop on a streaming platform today, it’d be one of the best shows you could watch right now. Amazon’s remake, however? It’s just another streaming show, straightforward where the other is oblique, with a muted palette and plain eye in contrast to the UK show’s clever Technicolor.
The contours of the new show are different, but its major beats are the same. It begins with a group of fans obsessed with a comic book called Dystopia — an obscure one-off that seems to have hidden in its pages the secrets of a vast conspiracy theory behind every major catastrophe in recent history. Connecting over the internet, they learn something that compels them to finally meet in person for the first time: A sequel comic, Utopia, has been uncovered, and it’s for sale. Unfortunately for them, they’re not the only ones after it, and some of their competition is a little on the murder-y side.
Put in 2020 vernacular, it’s a bit like watching a show about QAnon believers. The series explores the idea — fun until a few years ago — of what it might look like if the conspiracy theorists were right. Held against current events it couldn’t possibly anticipate, the ironies stack up in a way that makes it difficult to take the show on its own terms. It’s become hard to take the truth on its own terms.
The American relationship with the difference between fact and fiction has thoroughly corroded. Formerly neutral institutions like the CDC have been co-opted for political purposes, the advice of scientists and doctors has been sidelined during a pandemic, and open believers in the QAnon delusion are winning primary elections. Saying something is real requires more work than it ever has, if only just because it requires anticipating and debunking countless nonsensical claims about how the sky isn’t blue.
This makes Utopia look terribly naïve in a way that’s not really anyone’s fault, although it can be criticized for having little to say about the erosion of truth and the appeal of conspiracy theories. (It seems more interested in knocking gatekeeping male comic book nerds who take their favored medium too seriously, using an early scene to have one woman dress them down at length.) In its bigger diversions from the source material, it grazes uniquely American criticisms of entitlement, the disproportionate amount of power held by private corporations, and how the language of “freedom” is used to garner popular support for devious ends.
It all mostly falls flat, though, with characters that fail to hold your attention even as they do shocking things. There’s a parade of murder, dismemberment, and torture in the early episodes of Utopia that is legitimately numbing, and there is so much plot that there is precious little time to really get to know any of its characters.
It’s shocking, then, when Ian (Dan Byrd), one of the main characters, cracks a joke — he’s funny? Since when? Another member of the main crew, Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop) is barely characterized beyond her chronic illness. In fact, of the main group of nerds who are in over their heads, the only one who registers is Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), mostly for being the most paranoid in a group of conspiracy theorists.
As this group becomes more and more entangled in the conspiracy that seems increasingly real, the players get bigger and more severe: operatives from a secret program of trained killers, the head of a pharmaceutical company (John Cusack), an agent from the Department of Homeland Security (Sonja Sohn). It goes, as they say, all the way to the top.
And perhaps this is the reason Utopia is so unsatisfying: the allure of conspiracy theories is that there is some order to this chaos, that even if we are miserable, it is because of the actions of a ruthless few who have exerted an unjust control on us. Except, when that really exists, it’s no longer a conspiracy, it’s corruption, and it occurs in plain sight. All that hidden stuff, where we string together newspaper clippings looking for Pepe Silvia? It’s tiresome, and wholly unnecessary. Evil is right there, in plain sight.