Tea-spill alert: if there is such a thing as “too timely,” Amazon’s Utopia is arguably in the zone. After seven months of lockdown, privation and doomscrolling brought to you by a creepy virus and the complete annihilation of the public trust, I am not entirely sure why anyone needs this show. Not even because it’s bad. If anything, because it’s pretty good. Like: if you want to feel desperately uncomfortable for several hours, this show will get you there. But, like, so will your actual life right now, if you live in a populated area or have access to news.
Utopia, adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) and featuring a pretty bone-chilling performance by John Cusack as an evil biotech millionaire, doesn’t “touch a nerve” so much as reach out and grab the nerve, yank on it, stretch it tight and pluck it repeatedly like a whiskey-swilling banjo virtuoso and then tie it in a complicated sailor knot for you. The premise? A cabal of geeks come together around a cult comic book they believe contains clues to various viral plagues that are being engineered and released onto the unsuspecting public. They discover they are more right than any of them imagined.
There’s a lot of stuff going on with this show. Stuff that you’d call “homage” or “derivative” depending which side of the bed you woke up on. (“Mashup” might ultimately be the appropriate characterization.) Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), the comic book protagonist who turns out to be be a real and intermittently murderous girl, is an unapologetic reboot of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies. The sociopathic death-cult rich-folk vein Cusack is mining harkens back to… well, gosh, the entire rich history of evil-dudes-in-suits cinema. His placid-faced mantra, “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?” combines strains of Los Angeloid toxic positivity with the creepy puppetmaster sociopath vibe of the Rajneesh cultists who famously poisoned Oregon salad bars in the 1980s.
All the characters are epically weird, often but certainly not always in ways that are believable. But it’s a comic-book-dystopia world, so “believable” is what it is. When ruthless, on-a-mission Jessica learns from the comic book that her father is “probably” dead already, she shuts herself into the cabinet under the kitchen sink and screams, in total defiance of her own character arc. Humans under the age of ten murder people in cold blood, and pretty much give themselves a haircut and motor on. There’s a ticking-bomb assassin who’s only ever known as “RB” (for “Raisin Boy,” it unfortunately turns out) who can kill a hundred people before lunch without so much as a facial expression, but who seems in danger of losing it if the target happens to be a minor. The “Most Solid Acting” award here definitely goes to the wonderfully oddball Rainn Wilson, whose turn as a slightly bumbling good-guy virologist provides the show with the closest thing it will have to a moral center. Many of the principal characters are inhabited by performers who clearly have chops (Desmin Borges as the paranoid prepper Wilson Wilson, and Ashleigh LaThrop as terminally ill Becky especially stand out). It would have been great if they had a little more to work with.
Basically, Utopia is a Hieronymus Bosch dreamscape with themes of high anxiety, genocide-for-less-than-clear-reasons, germ warfare, gaslighting, and extremist spin control narratives. Nothing is what it seems. Everyone is lying. Everyone is trying to harm or kill someone. Most succeed. Production values are high: money went into this thing. The set design is all bleary and clutter-forward and brilliantly dark as hell. The pacing is pure inattentive ADHD, mixing a dreamlike slowness with bursts of mania. The script is sometimes funny (thankfully), sometimes melodramatic in a good way, sometimes melodramatic in a bad way. Sometimes it waxes serious, which is usually the biggest bummer. It’s exhausting to watch, frankly, and I don’t recommend pairing it with those gummies you got to help you sleep; if anything is going to activate the latent paranoia-inducing qualities of sativa terpenes, it’s this joint. (If you will.)
Perhaps all of that sounds like a major pan. It isn’t one. At least, not necessarily. Utopia is one of those confusing shows that has just enough awesome moves to make you feel confused and conflicted about the wealth of unexplored character impulses, and it is “timely” in a way that could make you feel a little patronized. By which I mean it’s leveraging the Zeitgeist more than reflecting it. (I’d offer The Handmaid’s Tale as an example of “reflecting” the spirit of a moment brilliantly without needing the moment to justify its existence). This show zeroes in on the current social… well, current: panic, terror, distrust, feeling controlled, feeling like no one is in control; the kind of moment when it’s all too easy to believe the most unhinged conspiracists are probably onto something and where everything feels unequivocally as though it’s falling apart for good. It does it stylishly. Generously. Lavishly.
The only thing is, all of that is precisely what I can’t even handle any more of right now. The real world is already scanning like a freaky comic book about the end of the world, with all the attendant symbolism and all the attendant shallowness. I dunno. In some ways, what’s great about it is precisely its worst feature.
Utopia premieres Friday, September 25th on Amazon Prime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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