Review of Utopia: Series 1, episode 1
It’s ironic that for a series titled Utopia, the characters that inhabit its colourful labyrinth of mysteries and murder are as far from paradise as it’s possible to be. Channel 4’s new conspiracy thriller begins with the off-screen gassing of a child in a comic book store, a bold opener that simultaneously establishes the tone and identity of the series while demonstrating (for the first of many times) that it’s playing by its own rules.
The enigmatic killers are in pursuit of a graphic novel known as ‘The Utopia Experiments’, a suitably apocalyptic book that seems to be of near biblical importance (for hired killers and comic book nerds, anyway).
In this world, ‘The Utopia Experiments’ is almost a mythical text – imagine the Holy Grail, only with more speech bubbles. Rumoured to have predicted some of the defining events and catastrophes of the 20th century and connected to an organisation that will seemingly stop at nothing to obtain it, the emergence of a second, unpublished volume is an item worth killing for.
Unfortunately, for our band of heroes, it would have been safer for them to search online for a signed first edition of Watchmen. Each character gravitates towards ‘Utopia’ for different reasons, but they soon find themselves hunted because of their connection to the book, with dire consequences.
The sheer brutality of the world they inhabit is only enhanced by the likeability of the central characters and the chemistry between the leads. Dennis Kelly’s script deftly interweaves important exposition about our heroes without sacrificing on dramatic tension.
There’s the adorable Becky (Alexandra Roach), an intelligent but flawed ex-medical student. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s Ian still lives with his mum at 28 and is seemingly allergic to the banalities of his office job. And then there’s Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), already established as the heart of the group (plus, he has his own nuclear fallout shelter).
Add to the mix the foul-mouthed, faeces-smearing Grant (Oliver Woollford) and you have a cast of characters who wouldn’t look out of place in a sitcom, so it only adds to the overall uncanny sense of the episode to see them stranded and powerless in such bizarre story territory.
One by one, each is removed from the safety and familiarity of ordinary life as their pursuit of ‘Utopia’ turns their respective worlds upside down. Before long they’re implicated in serious criminal offences, forced to flee from their homes and, in one case, brutally tortured. It was a courageous and disarming decision to make us care for the characters only to introduce them to tragedy so quickly (in another subtle but interesting creative decision, there was no ‘Next Week’ preview following the Fade to Black, meaning that details of the series’ second episode remain as mysterious as the pages of its elusive graphic novel).
But Utopia is as much a visual as it is a narrative treat, with the images as elaborately and thoughtfully constructed as the plot of the script. The cinematography is truly something to salivate over, a smorgasbord of colour combinations, and each frame is so distinctive and eye-catching that the ad breaks paled to Pleasantville proportions in comparison.
And yet there is a hint of menace hiding in its ever-changing palette, as if the world is balanced on the edge of chaos. The overall effect is enthralling but somehow violent, equivalent to the sudden descent from an Acid trip.
Utopia also embraces its comic book roots, offering several genre nods for those who are watching intently enough to notice the signs. There’s the Internet forum scene, that manages to introduce all our central characters while forcing us to read their messages on screen like an on-screen comic, and take note of the production design in Wilson Wilson’s room (in fact, it’s worth watching the episode a second time, so much is there to pick up in the background to the immediate action).
While Utopia is not a graphic novel, it is definitely graphic television. The torture scene, which will potentially be the most discussed scene on TV this week, concocts a recipe out of chillies, sand, bleach and a teaspoon that you (hopefully) won’t ever see on a UK cookery programme.
But these ingredients come together to form a rather satisfying hour of television, one that suggests there is a complex, fascinating mystery awaiting us over the next few weeks.
By episode’s end our heroes may not be in utopia, but if this stellar episode is an indication of things to come, their audience just might be.Tagged in: episode 1, series 1, Utopia
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