A twisty-turny bit of whack-a-doo conspiracy with a virus is either the escapism you need or, you know, not.
A twisty-turny bit of whack-a-doo conspiracy with a virus is either the escapism you need or, you know, not.

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Binary thinking is stinkin’ thinkin’. That said, you will either (A) love or (B) hate the idea of watching a show about the malicious intentional spread of a deadly virus right now. Understandably but irritatingly—Understatingly? Irritandably?—every review of Utopia has to perform an opening dance number about how oddly timed the show is and contextualize this remake of a British series as “maybe too in the moment.”

Poppycock, I say! I’d say malarky, but Joe Biden now legally owns all copies of that word.

Writer Gillian Flynn’s new Amazon Prime series is a whiz-bang bit of over-caffeinated conspiracism. It’s much harder to synopsize an 8-episode show than a 2-hour-ish movie, but the gist is this: Years ago, a comic book called Dystopia gained a devoted cult of fans who were convinced that the graphic novel held real-world truths about corporate malevolence, including the intentional spread of diseases.

Turns out, the whacked-out nutjobs who frantically smashed keyboards and did that thing with the different color strings and photos on their walls were totally right. When a couple stumbles upon an unpublished version of Utopia, the sequel to Dystopia, a group of online sleuths who had never before met IRL gather together to acquire it and wind up getting involved with a murderous raisin eater, a clinically depressed virologist, and a poorly hair-dyed John Cusack.

Those who hate this show—and lots of people sadly seem to really hate this show—point to its frequent descents into explicit violence. Those same people had absolutely no problem with the amateurish shock-and-awe that Breaking Bad often resorted to and presumably have never seen the work of Bong Joon-Ho. What’s even more maddening is that several critics take it a step further to suggest that the existence of QAnon means having fun with conspiracy business is now off limits.

Double poppycock to both!

Utopia’s violent moments are many things, but they are not gratuitous or cheap ways to advance the show’s plot. Each of those scenes build, transform, or reveal characters. They are also consistently written and are shocking, not because they come from nowhere, but because they make complete sense in the narrative in retrospect.

The show’s pinballing from goofy to gory is the kind of tone-shifting that often perplexes American audiences. “Uh, y’all can’t be silly and then do a murder.” Oh, they can! That’s not scattershot creative construction but deliberate painting to all available corners of the canvas.

And the show absolutely does not validate 5G-fearing, bonkers-dumb-idiots. It remands the most outlandish and extravagant obsessives to fiction, where they belong. In fact, people who see anything actually resembling the real world in Utopia are more terrifying than anything that happens in the show.

And that show is truly great by the way. Every actor—from the newbies to, you know, John Cusack—are perfectly cast and nimble performers. The twists are both fair and surprising, a delicate line to walk. Even the look of the show avoids being another derivative, sterile retread, instead delivering an Alice in Wonderland feel of a topsy turvy world not quite our own.

If there’s a complaint to be had, it’s in the reaction to the show. I am gonna be big, powerful mad if we don’t get more episodes. The below-tepid critical scores tell me that’s a very real danger. That’s the reason you’re getting a review of a TV show and not a movie today: Please, watch Utopia, so that I may have more Utopia. Please?

Grade = A

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Here are some of the best of the anti-Utopia reviews:

  • Chelsea Steiner of The Mary Sue says “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.”
  • Judy Berman at upstart magazine Time says “What makes the show unbearable, though, is that it exploits some of contemporary civilization’s greatest anxieties without saying anything worth hearing about them.”
  • Roxana Hadadi at the AV Club says “By the final minutes of the seventh episode, with only one episode remaining to wrap things up, Utopia is still talking around the baddies’ motivations instead of making them plain. That amount of obfuscation doesn’t make Utopia intriguing, but frustratingly impenetrable.”

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