Streaming services seem to be going full speed ahead with gritty, dark, and over the top tv series and adaptions. Every service continues to push the limits of what television is capable of, and Amazon Prime’s “Utopia” is no exception. Violent, dark, funny and provocative, “Utopia” has all of the familiarity of other streaming offerings while still managing to stay unique.
With a strong cast and constantly unraveling mystery, it is yet another strong outing on Prime’s ever growing list. While it isn’t quite as tongue in cheek as say “The Boys” and at times requires viewers to overlook some incredibly dark actions of both protagonists and antagonists. Though unnerving at times, it is still worth a watch for those willing to stomach its premise.
Based on the 2013 British series of the same name, “Utopia” follows a group of comic nerds who are all brought together by a mysterious graphic novel known as Utopia. Its predecessor, Dystopia, is said to have predicted most if not all of the past and current pandemics, and conspiracy theorists and doomsday preppers poor over the pages in search for clues. After a couple stumbles upon Utopia, the opt to sell it to the highest bidder. It soon becomes clear that the story of Jessica Hyde (the comic’s young hero), Mr Rabbit (the arch villain who is the cause behind most pandemics), and The Harvest (Mr. Rabbits henchmen) are all very real. They too are in search of Utopia, and our misfits of novel lovers become entangled in a life or death puzzle they must help solve to stay alive.
It goes without saying that “Utopia” hits far too close to home given our current climate. It seems simultaneously ill timed and also purposeful to release a series about weaponized pandemics during an actual pandemic. Furthermore, the show is wrought with conspiracy theories, shady corporations and government agencies all pulling strings behind the scenes to manipulate and albeit harm the American people. While “The Boys” deals with similar themes as far as culture and politics go, “Utopia” throttles forward without restraint, disregarding subtly and nuance altogether. Its relevance is unsettling, and its depiction of fictional events as they relate to current events may find some viewers incapable of seeing it through.
Sporting a solid cast all around, the series offers strong performances from its stars all the way to its relative newcomers. John Cusack (Dr. Christie) is particularly enjoyable here, once again leaving his comfort zone without losing that “Say Anything” charm. Rain Wilson (Dr. Stearns) is also a stand out, breaking free from the shackles of Dwight from “The Office” and demonstrating a range seldom seen in his filmography. There a lot of newcomers here; Ashleigh LaThrop (Becky) , Javon Walton (Grant), Hadley Robinson (Charlotte/Lily) and Farrah Mckenzie (Alice) barely have IMDB profiles of previous work, but more than hold their own against seasoned veterans. Christopher Denham (Arby) or as I like to call him, “Homicidal Sheldon” is particularly haunting and nuanced, with an arc that isn’t completely earned but brilliantly brought to life. “Utopia” doesn’t have a weak link in front of the camera, which is hard to do with so many characters coming and going.
Where “Utopia” struggles is in the aforementioned relevance of today’s time and its imbalance of dark humor blended with even darker actions on all sides. The antagonist’s plot and weaponization of viruses is evil enough, but it is not balanced by any do gooder actions of our heroes.
I hate to continually bring up this correlation, but this is where a show like “The Boys” gets it right. Our heroes are flawed and at times, downright dirty, but they never quite cross the line that makes them inseparable from the villains. “Utopia” doesn’t just blur that line; it shatters it. This makes it harder and harder to root for our heroes, and their motivations are seldom for any kind of greater good even if they believe they are. It is a lot of selfish people acting selfishly under the guise of heroism, and with only a few exceptions, viewers can find it hard to navigate who to actually get behind.
This is further exacerbated by the puzzle “Utopia” is and asks us all to help solve. Every episode is a new piece for both the viewer and the protagonists as the pour over the pages of Utopia in an attempt to put it all together and save the world. The problem is their end doesn’t justify the means. The pursuit to figure out Utopia and kill Mr. Rabbit leaves a bloody path in their wake and not all of them deserve it, frankly. Though not quite as diabolical as Mr. Rabbit and The Harvest, it’s hard to root for someone like Jessica Hyde, a hero who so singularly focused anyone and everyone can die without regard if it gets her closer to her goal. “Utopia” struggles with choosing sides, and while this can be effective if the line is blurred, it is far more difficult when the line disappears entirely.
It can’t be overstated the relevance “Utopia” inadvertently depicts. Even with the disclaimer at the start of every episode that it is a work of fiction, it’s hard to not feel like it’s not an exaggerated fantasy of actual events. It runs the risk of giving validity to things that many would consider conspiracy theories at best, but are nevertheless prevalent in our world today. Even if the inevitable conclusion is a common villain trope, the vessel of “Utopia” twists the message in a way that makes it less digestible than others. It should also be noted that “Utopia” is darkly funny. Its has a strong blend of oddity and humor that balances out its graphic violent and disturbing pandemic subject matter. Though at odds with itself sometimes, “Utopia” strikes the right tonal balance more often than not.
If you’re willing to set aside the eerily accurate depictions of world today, “Utopia” is a rewarding ride for those who like the darker side of things. It could have very well been another run of the mill outing of misfit, ordinary heroes surviving extraordinary circumstances, but manages to stand out despite its familiar themes. “Utopia” doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table, but for those willing unravel the mystery, it is a fun enough ride to take and see through to the end.
You may find yourself saying stay alive, Jessica Hyde.