Utopia Series 1, Episode 1 (2013)
Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Marc Munden
The first time I watched Utopia I knew I was going to have to binge watch the whole thing. It is rare that a television series in this polished, this sure of itself, and this damn good. Utopia gets dark, incredibly dark and it lets you know that from its opening scene (more on that in a minute). And it is a profoundly relevant show still five years out, talking about big ideas that are continuing to cast doubt on the future of humanity. Instead of framing this concept huge from the outset, the creators keep things small and intimate. The characters are where the story of Utopia starts and stays throughout its all too short run. And when you get to the end, you won’t forget those characters.
Utopia, for the uninitiated, is the story of a comic book, The Utopia Experiments. It’s author, Mark Dane, was an inmate in a mental asylum where he wrote and illustrated the book. It’s gained a rabid cult following online, and this acts as the hook to bring the show’s main characters together. In the background are murderous figures looking for both an unpublished manuscript for a sequel and a woman known as “Jessica Hyde.” The series is most notable for the strong aesthetics (colors are oversaturated, and shots are framed beautifully) and a level of realistic violence that gained public complaint throughout its run. Utopia is an exploration of the all-too-real horrors of 21st Century existence framed through a rose-colored fairytale lense.
The opening scene of Utopia has the intent of setting up the tone and themes of the series. This sequence of events doesn’t really exist to introduce characters or too much plot. Right away the sense of mystery is apparent. Two men enter a comic book store that hasn’t yet opened for the day. A guy gets bludgeoned to death. An eerily unfolding sticky note on a countertop introduces the “Utopia manuscript.” A brutish man asks the guiding question of this first series: “Where is Jessica Hyde?” There is absolutely zero chance the audience will understand this scene on the first viewing. But rewatching it, I can see the themes emerging.
People just sort of walk into their demise throughout Utopia. They trust the main baddies of Arby and Lee without question until it is too late. They breathe in a canister of gas without a second thought, and Lee even says, “It’s okay, it’s just gas.” Why would anyone in their right mind believe a total stranger who is shoving this in your face? But it feels all too real. As much as Hollywood has tried to convince the public we would be action heroes in the face of crisis, most of us would die in ways that appear foolish to an outside observer. Before we see Doomsday Comics, there are couple shots of rural English landscapes as the audio of a news report plays over them. The reporter is talking about humanitarian crises about a massive outbreak of disease. From these opening frames, Utopia is making its thesis statement. Nature is brutal, humans have survived through sheer dumb luck, and now that time is over.
I also want to briefly point out how genius the central question of the show is. “Where is Jessica Hyde?” Without the knowledge of spelling, the question could be heard as “Where is Jessica hide?” a grammatically incorrect yet colloquially appropriate statement made by a less educated person. And Jessica is most definitely in hiding, so the wrong version still works within the context of the series.
The main characters of Utopia are introduced one at a time in brilliant ways. Exposition is never heavy-handed and feels natural to the circumstances that each character finds themselves. Becky, the doctoral candidate, needs to explain her father’s deterioration at Deals syndrome to justify her proposal of a thesis about the Utopia graphic novel. Ian’s boss making a dig about him still living in his mother’s basement is a natural fit after Ian implies fellatio between his boss and upper management. We are introduced to the adolescent Grant first off camera as he joins in the Utopia chatroom, presenting himself as a successful adult, only to find him living in an estate home with his chemically dependent and absent mother.
The arguable star of Utopia, Wilson Wilson, is introduced in the chat and seen before we make the connection between the name and man. His eagerness to vomit up so much information about himself to Ian and Becky, even bringing them to his house and showing off his nuclear fallout shelter, betrays some pertinent character development. Wilson is so concerned about turning himself invisible, erasing himself off of the official grid. But he is so overjoyed to have company he ends up doing everything a more savvy conspiracy theorist might avoid. It’s pointed out to him that he uses his full real name on the Utopia chat to which he replies that no one would ever believe that is a real name.
While my wife and I were rewatching this opening chapter, she said she thought so much of this had happened over the course of many episodes and that is an essential element of the show to point out. Information moves fast in Utopia yet never feels rushed. There is this underlying sense of urgency as if the showrunners presciently know their days are numbered. This desperation of storytelling adds much to the tone of Utopia. There is a constant feeling of running out of time of racing to escape the looming threat. With the conclusion of the opening episode, it is clear that our characters have walked through a door, down a path that they will never be able to get off of.