Over six intense weeks Channel Four’s Utopia and its distinctly violent atmosphere intrigued viewers with an ever deepening conspiracy. Following a team of internet geeks pulled together by a collective interest in a graphic novel, the series sees a sinister ‘Network’ exacting a genocidal plot.
Opening with Kill List’s Neil Maskell and his sadistic sidekick, both actors relishing the cartoonish characters, the first scenes find two hitmen on the hunt for a manuscript. Maskell’s childish drawl delivers the repeated catchphrase “Where’s Jessica Hyde?” throughout – something gleefully reminiscent of the Twin Peaks hook “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
In another scene the sadistic duo tortures a central character, bizarrely named Wilson Wilson. While Maskell echoes the question in disconnected tones, the torturer (a fan of eyes, he adds) reveals an arsenal of chillies, sand, bleach and a spoon. Cutting to black throughout, along with an eerily close camera, highlights the horrific and sets the series’ sights well upon the cinematic. With stylish wide shots, bold colours and an odd beauty in a brutal moment – the rest of the show works on the same formula. Multiple scenes echo the graphic novel form and in doing so show such a hyper reality that allows the audience the wonderful opportunity to never take the show too seriously.
In some senses Utopia even becomes a guilty pleasure. In portraying the cult-fans embroiled in conspiracy it even throws a wink at its audience – pleading almost desperately to be torn apart on forums and in pubs. Rather satisfyingly this works for the most part, with likable geeks forced into theft and murder at the heart of the story (despite some obvious romantic subplot moments). For the most part, the character’s arcs over the course of the series become the grounding of the heightened story and there’s enough red herrings to avoid what at the time seem like inevitable clichés.
Other moments don’t quite duck this as well and while the ending of the series leaves the necessary excitement for a second instalment, it all seems to have rather fizzled out and the sinister ‘Network’ having been initially established as all powerful has nowhere to develop. Even the gently woven in health department subplot – which plays alongside the main action – seems so inevitably connected to it that by the end that the climax feels oddly comfortable to watch. To some attempt subverting this, the allegiance of the protagonists is called to question as there is a ground-breaking suggestion; that the villains might indeed be right.
It’s a vindictive and bold moment to inflict on an audience, especially after one episode controversially opened on a massacre in a primary school. The sense that their actions may be just however tears the audience apart as much as it does the characters and while it does somewhat sidestep some narrative inevitability; it still isn’t capitalized in such a way as to create a wholly satisfactory conclusion. Although in the final moments, ones which seem to look forward to a deserved re-commission, perhaps this is the point.
Of the cast, only the mysterious Jessica Hyde manages to disappoint due to an often grating performance that seems jarring, if robotic. Perhaps she just isn’t as much fun as the other characters, the rest of whom all have much more do including the Shane Meadows-style Grant who endures a horrific coming of age throughout.