April 7, 2020

Off the Beaten Path | Final Thoughts and Impressions of “Utopia”

At last. At long last, I’m done reviewing Utopia for you all. It took about a month longer than I originally anticipated, but I finally made it to the end. It may have taken me a while, but man I don’t regret hopping on the Utopia rollercoaster again, especially before the American Utopia-Remake on Prime becomes available sometime in 2020. Fun, slightly off-topic fact, not only was the remake filmed right here in Chicago but our very own Jason Quist worked on the show, which I only found out about after I started writing my reviews.

Back to my final impressions. Looking back at my pre-watch summary of Utopia, I didn’t have much in the way of a prediction about how the rewatch would turn out, just that I was excited to dip my toes back into the show. So, what conclusions about the show did I make about this rewatch? Was it better? Was it worse? Before I get to that though, there are some general things that I didn’t bring up I’d like to talk about in one last review for the show as a whole.

My Final Thoughts

First and foremost, while I’ve brought up some specific acting performances (Neil Maskell as Arby/Pietre in particular), everyone was one their A-game. While there were some characters and character associated plotlines I never really gravitated towards (Alice, Milner, Ian for most of the show) or wondered at some recasting (Donaldson in particular), no performance was bad. That is, no performance pulled me out of the world of the show. The closest that happened was when I recognized an actor who had a role in something else I’ve seen after I started watching the show; Lee is the main case here, in that I realized I had seen him play Henry Goodsir, the assistant doctor on the HMS Erebus in the first season of The Terror.

Also, I want to give one last shout-out to the heroes of the show operating behind the scenes. Utopia wouldn’t be nearly as good if it weren’t for the cinematography, done by Ole Bratt Birkeland and Lol Crawley for seasons one and two respectively, and the score, provided by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. 

While there were some well-documented story and pacing issues I had, the cinematography and the score were always on point. They elevated an already intense and largely satisfyingly complex story into the best on-screen depiction of a graphic novel; the only thing that can compete is Legion, released 3 years after Utopia ended. I’d go as far as to say that the Utopia-Remake will live or die not on staying true to the story but on how well they recreate the behind the scenes aspects of the original. If they don’t, the remake could very easily be passed over by new viewers mistakenly thinking it’s just another conspiracy thriller.

With all that said, once I finished my rewatch, my opinions of Utopia had shifted. Namely, I thought Utopia had some room for improvement even while being in the upper echelon of TV quality. For something that I’ve harped on for the majority of my reviews, this show has some superfluous characters and plots. For example, consider Alice and Milner in the first season, and Grant and Michael in the second season. These then negatively affect the pacing of the narrative, both at an episodic and seasonal level. I just find it odd that Utopia, a show with only six episodes per season, has a noticeable amount of narrative fat. It’s a demonstration that even a smaller episode count doesn’t directly lead to leaner stories.

Another thing I started to notice as the show went on was how the Network’s philosophy was never challenged. While it’s clear the central themes of Utopia deal with imminent environmental disaster and the dangers of inhumane solutions to human problems, the negative aspects of the themes went virtually unchallenged on a philosophical front. While a certain amount of cynicism is allowed in grey-gray morality stories like this, the fact the guiding philosophy of the Network goes unchallenged can give the impression that Dennis Kelly fully believes this philosophy and his given solution without irony. 

Luckily for Utopia, these aren’t issues that are permanent or debilitating. In fact, one of the things I keep coming to mind since I finished Utopia was how the original could be fixed, making an already strong and unique show even stronger. Honestly, these could easily be fixed if Utopia were greenlit for a third season. Ideally, Gillian Flynn made these observations herself and implemented them into the Utopia-Remake

In terms of cutting narrative fat, Kelly could establish storylines for each character that plays to their strengths while building up on top of what was established. Look at Michael, while he had next to nothing to do in the second season, he was made both the head of Corvadt and prisoner to a surveillance system akin to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It would be easy to play into this by having Michael actively use his position at Corvadt to rebel, again akin to Winston Smith. That, or they could just cut characters that are little more than props. For example, you could either give Alice a more active role in the narrative, like have her try to escape imprisonment with Grant or just as easily write her out, like a compelling death. 

On the thematic side, I saw glimpses of this from Ian in Episode 2.6. During his talk with Wilson while they’re researching leads at the hospital, Ian wonders if one can come back from becoming a killer. This to me is the most interesting question Utopia has asked. I mean, how can someone come back to humanity after either acting inhumanely or working for inhumane? What if you were forced into acting inhumanely by outside circumstances, or acted inhumanely for the benefit of humanity? Based on the growth of Pietre and Jessica, the show leans towards “yes, they can be redeemed”, but this has room to be examined even more thoroughly.

This to me would be a philosophical position to examine in-depth in season three. You could have all the principal characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, be put into situations where they have to ask themselves these questions about themselves. You could also have a rival philosophy emerge from the protagonists and rogue elements in the Network, where an alternative solution to overpopulation emerges that allows the random individual to retain their agency. And you know what, that’s only based off that one exchange in Episode 2.6. There’s a whole range of options available. 

Sure, these potential fixes will never appear in a hypothetical third season; Kelly and Channel 4 have gone on record saying Utopia is officially dead. That said, those fixes would be prime material for Gillian Flynn to bring into her remake. They could be implemented both in the narrative ground covered by the British original and/or in future narrative ground covered if the remake passes by the original.

In Conclusion

So in the end, just like with Danger 5 before, this rewatch reopened my eyes to Utopia. Sure, while I saw a lot more flaws than before, I was able to appreciate the show on a new level. I mean, even while Episode 1.4 and Episode 2.4 just exist, I was able to re-experience the greatness that was Episode 1.3, Episode 1.5, and Episode 2.1. And you know what, this will not be the last time I watch Utopia. Not by a long shot.

So, do yourself a favor and search out Utopia, especially before the Utopia-Remake. I hope I’ve convinced at least a few of you to check out this gem of a show. It may be bumpy in places, but it’s the best show I’ve covered so far on Off the Beaten Path. As for what’s coming up next on Off the Beaten Path, expect a science fiction show a couple of years ahead of its time, lost in the sea that is the internet and the ever-changing streaming service landscape.

Final Season One Recommendation: Highly Recommend

Final Season Two Recommendation: Highly Recommend

Individual Season One Episode Recommendations:

 

  • Episode 1.1: Highly Recommend
  • Episode 1.2: Recommend
  • Episode 1.3: Recommend With Caveats*
  • Episode 1.4: Recommend With Caveats
  • Episode 1.5: Highly Recommend
  • Episode 1.6: Recommend

 

Individual Season Two Episode Recommendations:

 

  • Episode 2.1: Highly Recommend
  • Episode 2.2: Recommend
  • Episode 2.3: Highly Recommend
  • Episode 2.4: Recommend With Caveats
  • Episode 2.5: Highly Recommend
  • Episode 2.6: Recommend

 

*: This episode is given Recommend With Caveats not because of the overall quality, but because the beginning scene is so brutal it could easily upset people, especially if they’re caught off guard. Otherwise, I’d say it’s a Highly Recommend.   

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

View all posts by Joseph MacMaster →

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