[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Even if you haven’t seen the most popular show on Netflix this week, you’re probably familiar with its, um, visual representation. While some criticism of the show is earned, accounts of its oversaturation can get a little exaggerated.
Still, that response to “Ozark” is rooted in the truth that big-ticket series and blockbusters are, on the whole, dulling. For an antidote, it’s worth turning to a show that is a decade old this year. The original “Utopia” has churned below the TV surface for as long as it’s had its cult favorite reputation, but compare its look with the bevy of gritty and bleak dramas that came in its wake and it still looks like something from a different, distant time.
Trying to make a neat summary of the plot of “Utopia” is a bit counterproductive, but the story centers around the manuscript of a graphic novel. Some rabid fans, long committed to parsing out the predictive easter eggs in the series’ previous volume, come into possession of some pages thought lost to time. Soon, they find out that there are forces intent on securing those answers for their own, and they’re willing to do anything to ensure that they alone have them. That small group of enthusiasts suddenly struggling for their own survival — including Becky (Alexandra Roach), Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) — get some reinforcements in the form of the mysterious Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), who’s savvy enough to cover her tracks and escape some sinister traps.
“Utopia” takes full advantage of the color wheel from its opening frames of a field, drenched in the same bright yellow that make up its title card. Each successive scene is driven by its own sliver of the rainbow: red mailboxes, green hills, royal blue suits, interiors trimmed with accents you’d find on a Bob Ross palette. To the extent “Utopia” is a puzzle for both characters and viewers to suss out, there’s something to be said for having all of these colorful pieces out in the open and ready to assemble rather than tucked away in shadow. Those color pops also serve another practical purpose: In a story where a series of illustrations hold the answer to sinister global plots and forecasts of cataclysmic events, it’s almost like those harbingers are bleeding into the “real world.”
“Utopia” is far from the first story to show brutality in plain daylight for maximum chilling effect. But the calculated, cold-blooded havoc wreaked by Arby (a truly mesmerizing Neil Maskell) is presented in a way that forces everyone involved to really reckon with the human toll that this manuscript hunt is taking on anyone who strays into his path. (Arby’s yellow bag matching the same yellow of the opening is an early indicator that no single shade belongs solely to light or dark forces in this world.) Different individuals in this decades-long saga approach their parts with a real callousness to the consequences of their actions. Series writer Dennis Kelly does little to provide a viewer a simple out to harden themselves in the same way.
The 2020 American-set remake of “Utopia,” in an attempt to distinguish itself, shaved off some of that early-2010s, early-digital contrast. That version (an Amazon production also available to stream now through Prime Video) certainly succeeds in being punishing in its own way, showing even less mercy towards the folks trying to escape the cabal that’s going after the pages. Yet, there’s a haze that covers most of the series, one that adds to the feeling that it’s an update designed to be endured more than appreciated. The summer 2020 release date’s timing certainly didn’t help, but the viciousness in this story requires some empathy, too, if it’s going to thrive.
It’s too soon to tell for the more recent version, but part of the UK “Utopia” legacy (like many other much-loved British shows from roughly 10 years ago) is seeing how many of its branches blossomed on their own. There’s a fascinating roll call of supporting players, from multiple actors who eventually sailed onboard “The Terror” to a future Skeldale housekeeper. Wayne Che Yip, who worked on the upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series, co-directed a few episodes here. Composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer used the same minimalist voice-manipulation soundscape for “Utopia” that he’d later bring to “The White Lotus.” And if all that wasn’t enough, the show’s Season 2 kicks off pitting Tom Burke against Rose Leslie in a superb bit of flashback casting.
The intervening years should have made “Utopia” even more difficult to watch. Talk of famine, a heavy, twisted subplot built around vaccines, and a story peppered with ruthless violence do not usually make for an eminently watchable formula. But on the strength of a world painted in hues that TV rarely sees anymore, this is one worth another look.