I love good television, but for the first decade of the 21st century it felt like all the best stuff came from the US. Recently that’s changed. Obviously there are the Scandi-dramas much beloved by Guardian readers, TV critics and, well, me. But Channel 4 and its subsidiaries have also upped their game with shows like Misfits and Top Boy. Among the highlights was last year’s conspiracy drama Utopia, which returned to our screens this week, and did so in spectacular style.
Utopia is a dark, twisted drama with a speculative thread, about a conspiracy to unleash terrible things on the world for the sake of a supposed greater good. I wouldn’t exactly call it noire – it’s too British for that – but it’s clearly influenced by long traditions of crime, conspiracy and horror films. The story works far better if you come to it fresh, but if you want to get an idea of what’s happening Between Screens has a summary and discussion of season two episode one.
This is a smart drama, one that intertwines real modern concerns about population growth with pop culture, conspiracy thriller, re-imagined recent history and a distrust of authority that runs deep in certain parts of the British psyche. This first episode of season two is like watching a moral question explored on screen. How do we deal with the problem of an ever-growing human population? Is there a crisis coming, and if so how do we handle it? And a wider question around this, visible in the characters’ personal relationships – where is the line drawn when you say you are acting ‘for their own good’? From the raising of children to the treatment of politics and population, this last question comes up again and again.
This is a drama that is meant to unsettle, and it does its job.
The first series made heavy use of a comic book in its plot. This one starts with an episode framed in old-fashioned 4:3 ratio. The whole thing has an intensity that’s cranked up by devices borrowed from across cinema stylings – you can read more on that from the show’s director here, and see some examples here.
These are devices that create both an absorbing intensity of atmosphere and a sense of distance from the story. As you’re watching, the familiarity of these cultural artefacts draws you in, drags you along. But there was a moment when they first hit, and in reflecting on them afterwards, when they reminded me of the unreality of the show.
Which is probably a good thing. As a certain tabloid seems to have forgotten in its hypocritical fussings over a plot point borrowed from real life, this is fiction. It reflects reality, but it never claims to be real.
Making the effort
Utopia is a show that takes great effort both from creators and viewers. I’m terrible at remembering plot points, and jumping back in after a year left me entertained but confused. I may well need to go back and re-watch the first series before continuing, which will be another six hours very well spent.
This show gives you a lot to think about, and to get the most out of it you have to do that thinking, to connect the pieces together, almost to become part of the conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that is the heart of the show as you look for patterns that may or may not be there.
It’s well worth the effort.
Who else out there is watching Utopia? What do you think of season two so far?