Review: UTOPIA, Let Cynics Rejoice
John Cusack, Rainn Wilson and Sasha Lane star in the Americanized series, created by executive producer Gillian Flynn ('Gone Girl'), and streaming soon on Amazon Prime Video.
In another time and another place, the series might have been considered timely. Today, it strikes me as noxious.
The series will begin streaming Friday, September 25 on Amazon Prime Video . I've seen the first seven episodes that were made available in advance; the series runs eight episodes.
Written by Dennis Kelly and first broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in 2013, an American adaptation of the conspiracy-minded British show was ordered to series by HBO in early 2014 with director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn on board. The two had recently collaborated on a feature adaptation of Flynn's novel Gone Girl, which was released later in the year to general acclaim in cinemas.
Without having seen the original show, which was completed in 12 episodes over two series, the premise sounded like a very good fit for the two creative artists, and I would have liked to have seen what they might have produced. That was not to be, however, reportedly due to budget issues. The series was picked up by Amazon Studios nearly three years later, with Flynn as creator, executive producer and showrunner. Fincher, however, was no longer involved.
Flynn is a gifted writer, and the dialogue in the show sometimes sounds as charged, insightful, perceptive and surprising as her other work, including Sharp Objects (especially the novel) and Gone Girl. Too often, however, the tone is swamped by a smug and cynical worldview that makes watching the series increasingly noxious and wearisome.
To a large extent, this reflects my own exhaustion from endeavoring to sort out "real news" from "fake news," the latter often delivered in a sneering manner by politicians and spokespeople who err on the side of true evil without seeming to comprehend that their words actively do harm to a great many people, whose only mistake is trusting the wrong source(s).
Burdened by the real-world pandemic that has overtaken all our sensibilities over the past few months, and, largely, without the reward of empathetic characters to make it all better or even tolerable, the series becomes a chore to watch over the seven episodes that were made available for preview by Amazon Studios. Perhaps David Fincher could have established a better tone for the series; as it is, Gillian Flynn endeavors to lighten the overwhelming darkness by injecting humor into the mouths of characters at the oddest moments.
The show begins on a brighter note by introducing a small group of comic-book fans who are excited by news that a long-rumored sequel to a beloved, limited series has been made available for auction at a fan expo. The adorable online group meets up IRL, made up of Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) and Grant (Javon "Wanna" Walton). Sparks fly; they are all fascinated by the legendary series, which supposedly proved itself to be prophetic of latter-day epidemics worldwide. What will the new series predict?
Their enthusiasm turns to terror when Things Go Wrong, and bodies start falling, and torture begins, and children are threatened, and children are harmed, and Evil Reigns Supreme, which comes long after my early enthusiasm was dampened and then slowly extinguished. The arrival of John Cusack (acclaimed scientist), Rainn Wilson (forgotten scientist) and Sasha Lane (mystery character) did little to slow my increasing disappointment.
Others may more easily find the humor in such situations as painful torture inflicted by senseless human monsters and confused murderers who strike fatal blows because they got up on the wrong side of the bed, or are paranoid, or are otherwise seriously disturbed by circumstances beyond their control.
I watched those seven episodes, and had to take a day off from modern television. After a day or so, I watched multiple episodes of The Boys, which is even more violent and, really, not to my taste anymore, but it's also on Amazon Prime Video and so makes for an easy comparison. The Boys knows it's a nasty series that is not for everyone, yet still features characters who are, potentially, redeemable, characters who do things and are motivated by backgrounds that are relatable.
That may be what Utopia is missing most for me: too few characters whose behavior is understandable and remains within the world of fictional possibilities, even if that world threatens to destroy itself over and over again, for little to reason at all.
If I don't have a reason to believe, I don't have a reason to watch. As always, your mileage may vary.
For more information about the series, visit the official site.
Note: trailer below is red-band (Not Safe For Work).