*Warning. Spoilers ahead.
Full disclosure here: I am a massive fan of the UK version of Utopia that first aired on Channel 4. I would go so far as to say that the first season of the original series might be my favorite season of any television show, going toe-to-toe with the best from prestige television like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. The combination of whip-smart writing, eye-popping visuals, and memorable score come together beautifully in the British version and it was truly a shame that it never got the recognition it deserved. That is why when I came across the trailer for this Amazon remake written by Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame and executive produced by Dennis Kelly, the original creator, I assumed it was a can’t miss prospect. After all, when you match such superb source material with someone who has an impeccable track record like Flynn, how could you go wrong? The answer, after watching Amazon’s Utopia, is apparently quite easily with one baffling decision after another.
Adapting a British series that is critically beloved for American audiences has been done successfully in the past with shows like The Office, Shameless, and Veep. These shows have even arguably surpassed their British counterparts. Utopia is not one of those examples. The season kicks off with a different spin on Utopia’s comic book origins. We start with a happily engaged couple moving into their new house left to them by one of their grandfathers. They stumble onto a manuscript with bizarre artwork titled Dystopia and the couple believes they can get some serious cash by putting it up for auction at a local comic book convention.
The post goes live kickstarting the plot into motion as we meet this series’ version of Becky, Ian, Wilson Wilson, and Grant as well as a new character made for the show named Samantha. (On an unrelated note, I did get a kick out of the cosplayers in the first episode especially the man wearing pigtails as he was my improv coach here in Chicago. ) The show plods, not for the last time, from scene to scene slowly introducing the rest of the main cast. There are some highlights here as John Cusack and Rainn Wilson, playing Dr. Christie and Michael respectively, manage to wring some tension out of the script whenever they are on screen. There are some lowlights, however, in the show’s versions of Arby and Jessica Hyde. Arby, paired with his accomplice Rod, play as low-rent versions of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. It is hard to see this version of Arby taking a sympathetic turn as the original did. Jessica Hyde is even worse. Her character isn’t so much pragmatic as she is bloodthirsty which makes you wonder if she isn’t the real villain of the show.
It was hard not to compare these versions of the characters to their British counterparts. Mostly for the fact that for much of the season, they just simply aren’t fleshed out and rarely rise from being one-dimensional pieces being moved from set-piece to the next. The most interesting of the friend group is Samantha, who is an idealist despite living in a cold, uncaring world. I was very excited to see what new dynamic she would bring to the show, so of course, she was gunned down in what was perhaps the worst scene in the entire show by Jessica Hyde.
In the original series, Hyde is a pragmatic survivalist who has spent her entire life away from normal society but still had recognizable humanity that we get glimpses of beneath her cold exterior. Here, Hyde kills Samantha for no better reason than “a group can’t have two leaders.” It is a moment that makes this version of Hyde instantly unsympathetic and the friend group is briefly alarmed before nonchalantly going about their business. It’s just one of many examples of characters never behaving like actual humans.
The tone is also all over the place as well. You get the sense Flynn was trying to go for a darkly comic take on the conspiracy but almost every one of the jokes falls flat. For example, the sequence where Wilson Wilson tries to take the wheel while half-blind and gets bit by Hyde wouldn’t feel out of place in a CBS sitcom airing at 7 P.M. on a Tuesday. The original was able to mine the absurdity out of the mundane moments in-between the action while here every serious moment gets undercut by some character behaving unnaturally or attempting some lame one-liner.
In fact, the dialogue might be one of the worst aspects of the remake. In every conversation, characters love saying exactly how they feel and rattling off plot-points to each other. Not a single moment of subtlety can’t be explained away immediately. I’m reminded of the bit in Futurama that goes “You can’t just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!”
The show also has the misfortune of releasing during a pandemic. It’s hard to watch the show, based around a government conspiracy around vaccines for a flu-like virus, and not think about the real-life parallels to a conspiratorial fringe in our own country. Just another misfire in a show filled with them.
For anyone who was a fan of the original, there’s nothing in this new season that improves on the original conceit. For new viewers, I would recommend just finding the UK version and skipping out on this version altogether. It is simply not worth your time.
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