I Have Seen the Promised Land Tuesday Night on Channel 4: A Review of Utopia



The trend of cinematic television is now well underway.  Channel 4's new six-part conspiracy drama, Utopia is perhaps something altogether different.  

Like all great art, it is both new and familiar.  It is a taut story about Government malfeasance, corporate greed and the defense of human dignity against all odds.  It is also an incredible visual orchestra of color and style.  

In Utopia, the line between protagonist and antagonist is not simply blurred, it doesn't exist.  In Utopia, torture and graphic violence are a banal part of the workday.  In Utopia, the innocence and the very lives of school children are mere fodder toward nefarious ends.  In Utopia, technology intrudes everywhere, no one can be trusted and nothing seen--at least on CCTV--can be believed.  At Utopia's core is a graphic novel by the same name that may or may not have been co-written by the Devil.  After four episodes, it is still not clear what exactly is happening.  That would normally be an indictment.  Here, it is high praise.  

The series opens with an unlikely pair of... well, what are they?  They're David-Lynch-plus-Laurel-and-Hardy-esque.  One dressed in an 80's retro suit, with the reassuring voice of a middle-aged hairdresser.  The other (played by Neil Maksell) wears a simple bomber jacket and the terrifying gaze of a world-weary assassin, dead inside, suffering not the slightest pangs of conscience.  Despite being a dangerous, dangerous man, the latter ambles about and there's something about his breathing that only adds to his frightfulness as he and his partner spend the first few moments in Utopia murdering everyone in a comic book store with hammers and nerve gas.

Who are they?  What are they doing and for whom are they working?  We get no answers, only a question:

"Where is Jessica Hyde?"

We eventually meet the pint-sized blend of sweet, corrupted innocence and homicidal rage that is Jessica, played by Fiona O'Shaughnessy with an intensity that makes Noomi Rapace look downright comatose.

But first, we meet "the Gang": Wilson Wilson, Becky, Ian and Grant, and Alice.  Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) is the unfortunately-named conspiracy-theorist archetype.  Ian (played by The Misfits' Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a bored IT professional.  Becky (Ann Roach) is the daughter of a now-deceased, mysterious scientist and Grant is an 11yo ne'er-do-well and comic book enthusiast.  The perfectly-named Alice is a studious, foul-mouthed Public school girl with an eye for artistic beauty and... ne'er-do-well comic book enthusiasts.  Seemingly by chance, they are caught up in something far beyond their world, forced to abandon everyone they love, all they have and whatever semblance of normalcy they ever possessed to go on the run for their lives.  In Utopia, every moment is either fight or flight.  There are no pauses to regroup, no time-outs, no time for baths, either, as Becky soon learns to her regret.

The central international plot involving drug manufacturers and Ministry of Health Civil Servants introduces us to Dugdale (played by Paul Higgins from The Loop), a man whose only crime is a penchant for a particular Russian call girl.  Well, that's his only crime at the start.  Soon, He meets an extremely creepy drug company executive played by Steven Rea and his assistant (played by James Fox) in an office with wood paneling that looks like it was carved by some Northern European pre-christian patron god of craftsmen, beauty and apocalyptic suffering.  He soon realizes that they have him by the short hairs and is forced to do their bidding.  Instead of folding up tent and heading home, he summons the strength to stand-up and fight, and fight he does.  But for what?  His office's integrity?  The public interest?  His mistress?  His wife? In Utopia, a man can go to bed having scammed the British people out of tens of millions of dollars and wake up the next morning transformed into a national hero.

This, along with the excellent supporting cast of characters would be enough to merit kudos from this quarter.  But, Utopia is so much more.

It is a visual masterpiece.

Every scene is exquisitely framed and filled with a palette of colors that serve to maximize the sense of dread and imminent discovery enveloping the characters.  There's that office. Rea's Letts and his assistant plot their evil deeds surrounded by scenes of horror and beauty carved into the walls.  The actual room is located at Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire--the exterior of which doubles as Alice's school.  As the "Utopia 5" are on the run, they move from suburban mcmansions vacant of their owners away on holiday to an abandoned country manor house piled high with the detritus of a different century.  They cross verdant fields bulging with bumper crops even as we hear about "food riots in Sydney".

The Color green.  Why Green?  Why so much in so many places.  We see it constantly.

It may be that this is the beginning of something new on the small screen.  It is television that is no longer trying to imitate the movies.  It is television producers, writers and directors embracing the aesthetics of the twenty-first century and learning to make the most of them.  It is television that is comfortable in its own skin.  

Whatever it is, it's a thrill to watch.

If Utopia is the future of television, it looks bright.  Sadly, as new-century as the creative forces behind Utopia are, the business forces at Channel 4 are sadly still mired in the mind-set of the past.  Those in the UK will be able to watch the final two episodes beginning next Tuesday.  Those who are not will have to wait until they see fit to distribute it overseas.
Comments to Joe Hubris.