This week sees episode four of Channel 4’s conspiracy drama Utopia hit our screens and after last week’s episode I was only left thinking, do we care yet?
After an oddly low-key advertising campaign, episode one appeared like a slight breath of fresh air to the January schedule. In comparison to most of what clogs up airtime on our telly boxes, and especially at this time of year, Utopia seems almost ground-breaking, for a moment at least.
Telling the story of a group of online friends who bonded over the shared love of an obscure graphic novel ‘The Utopia Experiments’ and have now become part of a global conspiracy surrounding the manuscript of an unpublished sequel, after one of their number is murdered for claiming to have it in his possession and with shady organisation ‘The Network’ hot on their heels, the group are now on the run… and that’s pretty much as far as the plot has gone over the last three episodes.
…a little bit of a rehash…
Now this kind of programming should be right up my street; attempts at interesting cinematography, multiple characters and storylines playing out beside each other all connected by the thread of conspiracy, and some pretty nasty violence. It’s something we don’t really see often over here, though it will become more common as English channels attempt to adapt in this new world of epic American TV. But as an early attempt Utopia is starting to feel a little by the numbers, or at least so heavily influenced by its American cousins that it seems that what is at least a cool idea and a great attempt at making a stand-out modern drama is a little bit of a rehash.
But when it comes down to it nearly everything is a rehash, and Utopia has enough going for it in concept and look to keep me watching even if my mind is dividing up the influences that created it. What really lets the show down is its lack of breathing space. Not that Utopia is an action-packed hour of non-stop twists and turns, great spaces are used up on Kubrick-esque shots of strangely coloured sets and backdrops, but the characters have been given little or no room to show us anything about themselves.
…a slightly Lynch-ian reality…
For the first two episodes it seemed that no time was used to create characters worth giving a damn about; Wilson had a moment of concern about his dad but all the characters have left their lives behind and have put the ones they love at risk, yet for the most part they all seem relatively well adjusted. Utopia is a somewhat detached narrative in a slightly Lynch-ian reality where everyone seems to be playing their role without reflecting on the actions that have dragged them into this weirdness, but even Lynch gave characters something beyond their motives.
Oddly it wasn’t until episode three when our most detached character, Arby, gave me my first hope for a little more character reflection instead of everyone being a talking head spouting the next clue, when it was revealed that he had been groomed into a psychopath and is considering the implications of his life so far. Even if it is piggybacking on just another factoid, Neil Maskell’s performance gave me the depth I had been looking for, something to propel me forward other than grim curiosity as to what the final payoff will be, because as much as these shows rely on plot they survive on characters, and even with Arby’s moment, so far I’m still asking myself: do we care?