If you're American, and you've never heard of the British conspiracy drama Utopia, that's OK. The show has been running for two seasons on Channel 4, and has yet to make it over to the states. Yesterday it was announced Utopia was not being renewed for a third series and that is a travesty. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was the best show currently running on television.
This post contains as few spoilers as I could manage.
It started with my friend Steph. "You have to see this show, Chris." this happened 3 times over the span of 3 conversations. "It's so fucking good." She kept talking about it, over and over, until I buckled and watched the whole thing.
The whole thing.
She was patient zero, and like a virulent disease the pattern would be the same. We would rant and rave about the show to a friend and then exactly a week later get the exact same text message or email:
"I just watched the whole thing. In one sitting. All 12 hours."
If you haven't seen it, I want you to do something for me. I want you to watch the opening sequence of the first season:
Right? Now that you're listening, let's talk about what Utopia is.
Utopia is a sprawling thriller centered around a group of online conspiracy theorists that all come together to unravel the meaning behind a rare comic book called Utopia. As the meaning behind the novel unfurls, the gang goes on the run in an attempt to track down the truth behind the manuscript.
Here are some reasons why it was so good.
There are few shows that get off the ground and stay there faster and more consistently than Utopia. Even the best shows usually have some fat on them. Game of Thrones has some stinkers early on, and you could argue that Breaking Bad didn't really find it's voice until midway through season 2. Utopia does not have that problem, because every episode goes off like a well-oiled machine. And unlike Lost or True Detective, every twist in the plot is fully justified, and every answer leads to two more questions. It's a perfect trail of breadcrumbs, one that is constantly paying off from scene to scene.
Every anamorphic frame in Utopia is considered. Aside from making full use of an aspect ratio that rarely gets its fair shake on TV, it has some of the most vivid, intense color-grading I've seen. Think Michael Bay saturation shoved into a Wong Kar Wai sensibility.
TV does not have a good track record when it comes to creating believably diverse casts. Utopia solves that. There is no chiseled white hero dude in the gang, and the immense flaws that the main characters have are completely incidental to their backgrounds.
This is all encapsulated in Fiona O'Shaughnessy's pitch-perfect performance as Jessica Hyde. And like Game of Thrones, Utopia is constantly trying to subvert what you think about characters that you already revile or love.
The whole series is pushed forward by Cristobal Tapia De Veer's mind-bending soundtrack. It's full of industrial percussion that fades into these ghostly, ambient, samples that twist and turn, creating this explosive tension. You can't just describe it, you have to listen to it.
Talking about the subject material in Utopia without spoiling any of it is a thorny issue, so I'll put it this way: Imagine every bonkers conspiracy theory that's been shuffling around pop culture in the last 100 years woven together into a giant drama about the New World Order. Now mix that in with every legitimate crisis that's looming over the horizon for your grandchildren, and you have the backdrop of this show.
It was announced earlier this year that David Fincher had secured the rights to make an American adaptation of the show on HBO. That would normally be a great idea, if I didn't have the sneaking suspicion that he might actually fuck this one up. The source material that he is pulling from is already too damn good, and if House of Cards is any indication of the kind of TV that man can produce, we're in for a diluted version of what we're getting here.