Season One of Amazon’s Utopia is a Frankenstein’s monster of a television series; the eight episodes making up its collective body are a mash-up of different genre elements. Chunks of horrifying imagery are stitched together with moments of comedy, with a charming and likable main cast, the show’s given a heartbeat. Meanwhile, its brain is made up of a network of multifaceted thriller and conspiracy plotlines designed to keep audiences on their toes.
The mad scientist behind Utopia is Gillian Flynn, the best-selling author/screenwriter behind Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, and Dark Places. In 2014, Flynn and director David Fincher collaborated for the critically acclaimed adaptation of Gone Girl; soon afterward, it was announced that Flynn and Fincher would reunite again for an adaptation of the British series Utopia for HBO, but those plans ultimately fell through. Since 2018, Flynn has been attached as the main creative force behind an American remake of Utopia with the series landing on Amazon Video, her tackling the scripts for all eight episodes, and guiding the show to its recent release with a number of directors.
Fans of the original series expecting Flynn’s Utopia to be a shot-for-shot remake of the often left-field series will be disappointed. This new rendition of the show takes elements of its inspiration and remixes and matches them, but the core concept remains almost identical. The plot follows characters Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), and Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton), fans obsessed with a comic called “Dystopia.”
The comic follows the story of Jessica Hyde, who as a child was kidnapped along with her scientist father by a group called The Harvest and their leader Mr. Rabbit; Mr. Rabbit forced Jessica’s father to use his knowledge to help create deadly viruses then kidnapped him. Jessica Hyde then has to hunt down the evil mysterious group and their leader to find her father. When a sequel to “Dystopia” called “Utopia” is discovered, the online friends meet in real life only to discover that not only is Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) real, but The Harvest and Mr. Rabbit are too. With a new deadly virus promising to spread from The Harvest, the group must use their knowledge to piece together the mystery of “Utopia” and save the world.
While telling this plot, Flynn’s version Utopia drops the heavy use of color and strange musical cues that were integrated in the British version, but instead features its own unique stylistic choices. In one scene during the pilot, we hear Wilson Wilson explain the “Dystopia” mythology; as he does this, we view Jessica Hyde’s story through detailed illustrations featured in the comic with the camera slowly moving along the page giving the story a motion comic feel. This choice is further expanded upon in one of the later episodes where Jessica herself looks at the pages of “Utopia,” triggering her memories of “Home” – the place where The Harvest kept her and her father, but also other children. Here, instead of the camera softly moving along the pages of “Utopia,” the story comes alive with these beautiful bursts of animation as the fairy tale imagery is contrasted with sinister depictions of Jessica and other children being tortured and experimented on. With this being such an eye-catching element of this version of the series my only wish was that it was used further to push the distinct nature of the remake.
One element of this series that Flynn has kept exactly in line with its predecessor is Utopia’s grisly and unsettling vision of violence; the show has so many of these scenes that if you were to spin a wheel with a number of them you’d land on one that’s just as intense as the one next to it. In one of the show’s first gruesome displays of this, two agents of Harvest, Arby (Christopher Denham) and Rod (Michael B. Woods) torture Wilson Wilson in his underground bunker while looking for “Utopia.” Each time he pleads he doesn’t have it the two men go to work on injuring one of his eyes. First, they pour in salt. They don’t get the answer they’re looking for. Then they pour in bleach. They still don’t get the answer they’re looking for. Then they remove his eye with a small silver spoon. All of this is extremely difficult to watch due to the convincing pain and screams by Desmin Borges, who does such a great job portraying the physical and emotional pain his character goes through throughout the series.
The most disturbing act of violence in the show is one that’s not explicitly shown on screen. Here, Harvest sets up Grant, whose offline self turns out to be an 11-year old boy, as the perpetrator of a domestic shooting. Carrying out the actual assault is Arby, the blue inhaler carrying, raisin eating assassin. We see him and a planted Grant look-alike implicate the actual Grant’s fingertips at the scene of the crime – a family’s warmly lit home. Arby shoots one person before moving into the family’s dining room. At the head of a table, a woman stands with her baby. Her and the other members, about to enjoy a meal turn in surprise. As we hear gunshots the camera cuts to imagery around the house before circling back to the dining room. Though the bodies aren’t displayed, we see the aftermath. Blood on broken plates, bowls, and utensils.
After murdering all of the family, including a young boy eating raisins, Arby unleashes an alarming scream given the flat nature of the character. Throughout the season we eventually find out that Arby was not only kept and tortured at “Home” like Jessica Hyde as a child but is also her brother. Though mostly speaking in a constantly monotone manner, Denham makes this feel like a dynamic performance as opposed to one that’s boring. The audience slowly starts to realize that Arby, along with Jessica, never was given a chance to grow up, his body just increased in size.
Fortunately, the show isn’t quite just a slaughter-fest; Flynn’s script also manages to pepper in a lot of natural humor despite the dark circumstances. During one scene, Ian and Becky meet with a potential alley that could help them in their quest, Homeland Agent Katherine Milner (Sonja Sohn). While introducing themselves in what should be the start of a dramatic confrontation the two struggle for a few comedic beats trying to fit themselves on a small stool step ladder to sit down.
Tonal shifts like this are easy to pull off when you have such a likable and charming cast; while the whole cast does great work as an ensemble, at the top of the list is Byrd and LaThrop, whose natural chemistry as Ian and Becky give the show a warmth and heart that is lacking in other plot lines. In the pilot, there’s this really wonderful long interrupted shot of Becky and Ian walking through a comic convention floor taking in the scenery, discussing “Utopia,” and being happy to meet in real life as they’ve only had a romantic rapport online. This scene does wonders to establish the connection Ian and Becky have, shows off the incredible chemistry of Byrd and LaThrop, and makes you invested in their characters throughout the series.
Unfortunately, scenes like this are lacking with other characters in the series. The show puts in a lot of heavy lifting showing off the sinister nature of Harvest and the twists and turns surrounding the plot of “Utopia,” but oftentimes skims over scenes setting up the relationships of its leads. For example, in a shocking moment during the show’s second episode Jessica Hyde brutally kills off Jessica Rothe’s character Samantha to establish dominance over Ian, Becky, and Wilson Wilson. However, by the season’s end, these characters are friends willing to put their lives on the line for one another. Utopia never quite hits the mark in selling the audience this loyalty, and it feels like the characters go from a to z together but skip all the letters in the middle.
The consequence of this is the lack of character building scenes eventually starts to leak into the effectiveness of the plot. At the season’s end, Wilson Wilson betrays the group, and it turns out Agent Katherine Milner is the villainous Mr. Rabbit pulling the strings. Because we don’t end up getting to know a lot of these characters too well it ends up hard to feel emotionally invested as an audience member.
When viewing Season One of Amazon’s Utopia, it’s easy to see it’s a Frankenstein’s monster mash-up of thriller and comedy; together all of these have the makings of a great show. As of now, its mind is a little bigger than its heart, with it drawing more attention to its mystery plotline as opposed to its characters. Luckily, these parts can easily be reworked; should the show come back for Season Two, Gillian Flynn should have no problem readjusting the show and shocking to life a better version that’s more balanced between character and twists.
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