Amazon’s Utopia Is Timely in All the Wrong Ways
Gillian Flynn's new series pours salt in the wound that is 2020.
You can’t talk about Amazon’s new conspiracy thriller series Utopia without addressing the 2020-shaped elephant in the room. In what is either the best or worst possible timing (take your pick), Gillian Flynn’s twisty new series takes place in the early days of a growing flu-like pandemic. As the pandemic spreads, conspiracy theories gain traction, angry citizens take to the streets in protest, and fear and uncertainty abound. Sound familiar?
Timeliness can be a boon to certain series. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which seized on women’s fears in the face of a right-wing autocratic presidency, became an instantly meme-able cultural moment. It certainly helped that the show featured striking visuals, good writing, and devastating performances. Unfortunately, while Utopia trafficks in a similar sense of dread, it offers little in the way of redeeming qualities.
Utopia is a remake of the British series of the same name, which aired on Channel 4 in 2013 and quickly achieved cult status. The 8 episode series is written entirely and showrun by Flynn, the author of dark domestic thrillers Gone Girl and Sharp Objects.
The series follows a group of comic book fans obsessed with the mysterious graphic novel Dystopia. While Dystopia is an Alice in Wonderland-style fable for some, the true devotees treat the material like a sacred text filled with ominous portents of the future. In analyzing the text closely, these diehards have discovered that the book accurately predicted every major viral outbreak and disease.
So when long-lost sequel Utopia finally surfaces, everyone is eager to get their hands on the manuscript. After all, who wouldn’t want a magical book that predicts the future threats to mankind? That’s the thinking that unites the core friend group of the series: doomsday prepper Wilson (Desmin Borges), student Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), nebbish office worker Ian (Dan Byrd), eco-crusader Samantha (Jessica Rothe), and younh Grant (Javon “Wanna” Walton).
Also on the hunt for the manuscript are a couple of normcore assassins, who violently murder and torture anyone who has laid eyes on Utopia. Also in the mix is bio-tech mogul and philanthropist Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack), his Jared Kushner-like son and employee Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), and hapless virologist Dr. Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson).
Oh, and there’s Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) a ruthless young woman claiming to be the real-life heroine of the comics.
Murder and mayhem soon follow as the comic book nerds tumble down the rabbit hole and the conspiracy takes draws the players into its serpentine maze. There’s so much happening in any given episode of Utopia, but none of it lands in any emotional or authentic way. The characters are thinly drawn and flat, so when they are attacked you don’t really care. And while the series deals in major stakes (i.e. the apocalypse, a virus, technocracy) it utterly fails to invest you in any emotional stakes. Flynn, who wrote every episode herself, could have used the input of a writers room to enrich to voice of the series. Instead, the results are deadening.
The violence (and there’s plenty of it) serves no other purpose than to shock or gross the viewer out. Unlike Amazon’s other comic book-based series The Boys, which uses violence to service dark humor and irony, Utopia‘s bloodlust feels pointless and brutalizing.
And that sums up a show that should honestly be much better. And while the British series was similarly dark, it had a distinct visual flair and compelling performances to keep you engaged. This is a series with plenty of money, charismatic actors, and a strong creative voice, that absolutely squanders its strengths in service of a nasty, brutish, intentionally confusing slog. In that way, the series does in fact encapsulate living through 2020. And that’s not an experience I want mirrored back to me in this moment.
(featured image: Elizabeth Morris/Amazon Prime Video)
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