“This program is a work of fiction, and not based on an actual pandemic or related events. It contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing.
Viewer discretion is advised.“
That is the disclaimer at the beginning of Amazon’s most recent original series, Utopia–and boy, did they need it.
The show focuses on an online group of conspiracy theorists who are obsessed with the comic book Dystopia. They believe that it predicted a number of viruses and diseases that have plagued mankind for the last half decade or so.
In the opening moments of the show, a young couple discovers the manuscript to Utopia, a continuation of the original Dystopia. They head online to advertise that they will be auctioning the manuscript at a Chicago comic book convention. The intrepid group of conspiracy theorists decide to get together so they can pool their resources and purchase the manuscript in the hopes that it will help them predict–and ultimately stop–any new diseases that might crop up.
While that is the basic premise the show operates under, it is several levels of magnitude more crazy.
As the plot picks up speed one of the stories the show focuses on is a new strain of the flu that has broken out in certain parts of the country. This strain disproportionately affects children and is one-hundred percent fatal. Much of this side of the story focuses on Kevin Christie (played by John Cusack) and his corporation’s supposed ties to the virus. While this story adds to the mystery of the show, the more interesting aspect– because of the times we live in– is the public’s response, and the attitudes of the media and government officials who are interwoven into this part of the story.
It was bizarre to watch something that was clearly in development long before 2020 (and was based on a 2013 British television series) deal with things that we have all lived through and are still dealing with. I found this endlessly entertaining, but also…
I mean, Amazon could not have predicted that a pandemic would ravage the world when they started production (or could they?… Dun dun duuuuuun!).
While watching the show I often wondered if the tail end of 2020 was the best time to release Utopia. However, if they released it after everything died down then it might have lost some of its punch, or be considered a grotesquerie of what it was originally meant to be. As it is, the show could be considered too divisive, or too timely.
Stranger than Fiction
Setting aside the similarities to the world we live in, the rest of Utopia is completely bonkers.
It turns out that the comics were not only predicting fatal viruses, but they were also detailing–with some artistic license–the life of the comic’s main character, Jessica Hyde. She spent her entire life either in the custody of, or running from, The Harvest, a faceless organization dedicated to creating bio-weapons.
The comics depict all this with an Alice in Wonderland-esque story. The reality is much darker as the intrepid group of well-intentioned conspiracy theorists find out when The Harvest comes after them for merely looking at a single page of Utopia.
The first few episodes have some scenes that caused my wife to tell me to put on headphones if I was going to continue to watch it. There is torture and more deaths than I can rightly remember, all carried out with an amazing lack of urgency or empathy, making The Harvest all the more sinister.
While Utopia’s violence is nowhere near the level of Amazon’s other conspiracy drama The Boys, it still managed to make me shy away from the screen a couple of times. So, you know, the squeamish need not apply.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Utopia may well be the “wrong show at the wrong time,” as some have said. There is virtually no way to objectively view this series while living through a literal pandemic.
However, I have attempted to do this.
I thought the show was very well done. The acting was solid, the jokes funny, and the plot was pretty well thought out. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it inadvertently managed to pull off a meta commentary in a way that some shows were actively trying to achieve (looking at you Cult) without becoming too self-serious (and you The Following).
I’m giving Utopia a pretty solid 7.5/10. It’s not its fault that it was forced into existence at this particular juncture in history. While it will be forever colored by the current pandemic in the eyes of those who watch it, on its own, it is a solid and worthwhile Amazon Original.