The trend of adapting British shows for American audiences is tried and true. We’ve had stellar recreations that hold up as their own successful shows, some that are decent enough, and some for which we should have left well enough alone. Utopia, Amazon’s adaptation of the 2013 British series probably should have been left to our pals across the pond.
Some obsessive comic book fans swear they’ve uncovered messages hidden in their favourite work. When a penultimate sequel is uncovered by some laypeople, the fans gather at a convention and meet for the first time with the hopes of getting their hands on it. Before they can acquire it, it’s scooped up by a mysterious buyer and soon comes to be chased and hunted down by a brigade of eccentrics who would kill for the comic. Launching the gang into a massive mess, they find themselves trying to find the key to the world’s pandemics, racing beside a pharmaceutical company owner, a comic book subject, and other people desperate to solve the mysteries of the book, or to ensure they go unsolved.
Shining some light on big bad corporations and the lengths evil will go to do their evil deeds, Utopia flies way too close to the “topical” sun. Of course, the series went into production long before we were neck deep in a pandemic, but the pandemic storyline doesn’t make the show relevant, it makes it hazardous. The series posits the possibility that a comic was predicting or blowing the whistle on pandemics being staged and disseminated intentionally. Never commenting on these issues, it simply showcases it as a viable possibility. Further, it mentions China as an epicenter of manufactured pandemics as a biological weapon, questions the effectiveness and hazard of vaccines, and even goes so far as to suggest companies stage shootings of children. Also there are comic-y shots of children in cages, some of them even gassed. Kind of a yikes from me, boss.
It’s not in and of itself a negative to portray these themes and theories, something reviews tell me that the 2013 original series did. But it is difficult to posit them in fiction without commenting on them, which the show never does. Gillian Flynn, the author and writer known for Sharp Objects, Gone Girl and Widows, created and penned the series which would suggest a mysterious and well written show full of depth was what to expect, so it’s pretty surprising it lands so poorly. The show leans a bit more Young Adult than her other works so it’s possible this was new enough territory for her that it wasn’t her best, but I found myself often baffled that these words were written by the successful and excellent writer. The parts I found the most jarring knowing who was off screen penning the words were the clunky scenes of women at work as a weird way of jamming feminist ideas into the series. Again, perhaps a poorly executed attempt at commenting on faux feminism, but the corporate head honcho getting talked over at a meeting about a slaughtering doesn’t do it for me.
Though it leans YA, it also never really finds its genre footing. Most of the time, it’s YA Sci-Fi, but it also dances a bit too close to drama and thriller while launching itself into some of the cringiest dark comedy. I spent time thinking “this is for a younger audience, it’s not for me, remember that,” while simultaneously thinking “yikes, this is too adult.”
The main cast is excellent and does great work with what they’re given. John Cusack works so well as the flawed CEO of a major company, I genuinely want to see more roles like this for him. The show lives and dies by Dan Byrd, Desmin Borges, Ashleigh LaThrop and Sasha Lane giving the most to us, since the show never dares to make us care about the rest of the world in danger. They’re the heart at the center of the series and any rooting we do for others is as a means of hoping they can assist the gang. Rainn Wilson plays a warmer character than we’re used to seeing from him and he melts into it flawlessly. The gaggle of eccentrics is lead by some stellar character actors who absolutely nail it in their roles. They all manage to be scary, creepy, unsettling, and warm enough that you don’t know what to do with them and it’s the characters that truly keep this show afloat.
The show is a fun enough premise that could make for a nice addition into some fluffier thrillers, but it fails to connect by being full of continuity issues, mysteries with no payoff and lazy tropes (of course, the cosplayers are drunk and vapid and get shot in the head). The mysteries fall flat because they’re never of any consequence, so the continuity and logic don’t matter much. Episode to episode, you’re concerned with life and death, but the secrets are never consequential enough to the plot that you’re itching to know the solution to the mystery.
The best parts of the show are repeated imagery that ties it somewhat to other Flynn works. Scissors are used often and in different ways, creating the same discomfort we got in Sharp Objects when seeing the banal blades, and braids are used in an interesting way to symbolize tethering and freedom.
I wanted to dump my disbelief and have a good time with a well shot, well acted series like this, but there were too many casual uses of “right wing conspiracy theory” and “government overreach” to allow me to enjoy myself. At a different time, maybe this would have landed a different way, but with the threads not mattering and the story feeling yucky in 2020, it was just too much to ask for me to enjoy the cool show tableaus.