‘Utopia’ Review: Gillian Flynn’s Amazon Adaptation Was Not Meant for This Moment

Or, why we need to stop describing television as "timely."
Utopia Amazon Series John Cusack
John Cusack in "Utopia"
Amazon Studios, Prime Video

By and large, “timely” is a terrible word to use in the context of a review. There are obvious exceptions, when dissecting the weight of an excellent program is tied directly to its relevance, and before my pesky little trolls dig up eight old articles where I improperly lean on that particular adjective, I’ll admit: I’ve used it. We’ve all used it. When you watch a show or film that feels particularly relevant to headline news, it’s almost instinctual to throw the word “timely” into your own headline. People need to know know that this one is different than so much of the mindless entertainment out there, because this show speaks to the moment.

But does that mean it’s good? Bad? Effective? Affecting? “Timely,” on its own, doesn’t really tell us anything qualitative, and even as a context clue, the word has been hollowed out by misuse. Commentators who use “timely” to describe narratives about police misconduct or racial injustice simply haven’t been paying attention long enough. Overuse is a problem, too. As long as you’re writing about what’s going on in the world today — and, one way or another, we all are — everything is timely. Trump’s election really crystallized that concept, as so many stories post-November 2016 felt related to the president, his supporters, or the many problems connected to both.

When your mindset is dominated by a common concern, all roads lead to the same spot. A drama about the systematic oppression of women? Timely. A comedy about political sniping? Obviously timely. A show about dragons and warfare and full frontal nudity set in a made-up fantasy land? Still timely! The point being, if you sit with something long enough — whether it’s living under a misogynistic fascist or surviving a global pandemic (with a death toll that’s been exacerbated by that same misogynistic fascist!) — then it clouds your every thought. You see everything through that fog, and thus everything you see is foggy.

Enter “Utopia,” Amazon Prime Video’s new original series that’s impossible to discuss without mentioning its timely premise. Set in modern day Chicago, the eight-episode first season follows a group of comic book geeks who are fighting a mysterious organization for control of a graphic novel — and here’s where the relevance comes in — that may hold the key to ending a national pandemic.

Hazmat suits are worn by nearly every lead character. National news covers the viral outbreak 24/7. People are scared. Protests erupt. Conspiracies are debunked and, disconcertingly, validated. “Utopia” carries more parallels to the ongoing global pandemic than many of today’s news outlets (where the next election has outranked COVID coverage).

Utopia Amazon Series Jessica Rothe
Jessica Rothe in “Utopia”Elizabeth Morris / Amazon Studios

It’s also very, very different. Without getting into spoiler territory, it’s hard to say exactly how “Utopia’s” fictional pandemic differs from our real one, but its origin, dispersal, and effects are all tailor-made for a TV thriller, if not outright science fiction. This isn’t a grounded take. This is entertainment, and any timeliness wasn’t invited by its creators — it was thrust upon the show by circumstance.

So here’s another problem with “timely”: Whether intended as an endorsement or a censure, the word can often elicit the opposite effect. Maybe you don’t want to watch a TV show that hits a little too close to home right now, but plenty of people do. Similarly, if you’re only invested in seeing direct parallels to your real-world experience, there’s still someone else who’s hoping to escape into an alternate timeline only tangentially connected to our own. People are fickle. Just because you “can’t imagine” who would or wouldn’t want to watch this show, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of those folks out in the world. All you can do — as a critic, a writer, or anyone with a louder megaphone than average — is interpret how well the series achieves its goals, and what effect it had on you.

What you need to know about “Utopia,” now that I’ve spent more than half of my word-count explaining what you don’t, is that it’s grim to the point of being hostile, clumsy in critical character-centric moments, and an otherwise efficient dystopian thriller. (Many episodes are under 50 minutes, which is often the bellwether of streamlined television these days.) Amateur conspiracy theorists have plenty to chew on (arguably too much by Episode 7), and the unsettling trail of breadcrumbs is dispersed well enough to keep hardened viewers engaged. There’s at least one too many gruesome “twists” by Episode 2, especially a kicker that undermines a lot of long-term potential, but fans of Gillian Flynn’s dark and violent written work will likely see a lot of similarities between her past screen adaptations and this, her second adaptation of another author’s work. (Remember: “Widows” was also based on a British TV show.)

Utopia Amazon Series Dan Byrd
Dan Byrd in “Utopia”Elizabeth Morris / Amazon Studios

If you’re looking for a stronger opinion, maybe consider why I ended up writing more about the annoying trend of “timely” TV than “Utopia,” but let me expand on the provided premise anyway: “Utopia” starts at a comic convention where a random relative has discovered the eponymous comic that could save the world — and is selling it for cold hard cash. “Utopia” is the sequel to “Dystopia,” which according to its obsessive fans, accurately predicted many of the diseases afflicted upon society over the last few decades, so it’s only logical to assume the follow-up will offer similarly clairvoyant foresights. Unfortunately, mega-fans Wilson (Desmin Borges), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), and the mysterious Grant (Javon “Wanna” Walton) aren’t the only ones who believe in “Utopia’s” predictive power, and soon they’re being chased by an ominous corporate goon squad (led by Christopher Denham’s cold-blooded Arby) and a lethal woman who may or may not be a character from the comics (“American Honey’s” Sasha Lane).

Near the end of its seventh episode (the last provided in advance), “Utopia” lands itself in the middle of a debate I’m not sure it wants. Time (and interviews) will tell what kind of messaging was intended, if any at all, but this kind of narrative mismanagement isn’t restricted to the show’s more delicate thematic content. The biggest problems lie in its characters, mainly the possible comic book character Jessica Hyde, who is simply too cold-blooded and underwritten to make for a compelling central figure. The rest of the crew are similarly flimsy, even if the performers (notably Desmin Borges and Cory Michael Smith) manage to elevate them above sketches.

For how well “Utopia” mines modern society’s greatest fears, it’s mainly cultivating them for ambiance, not commentary. Maybe current events make it difficult to judge the show on its own terms, but it’s not free from judgment either. There are problems and pluses that exist no matter when someone watches — credit to the Chicago backdrop for helping distinguish the series’ overall look — and, ultimately, it’s just another spooky story in need of refinement. To call it timely would be too generous and too thoughtless. Huh, it’s almost like the conversation should’ve been focused elsewhere.

Grade: C

“Utopia” Season 1 is streaming now via Amazon Prime Video.

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