A strange virus is causing fatalities throughout Middle America. A group of folks who’ve been chatting online for some time think there’s some bigger, deep-state conspiracy behind it all; they’ve found a series of documents that they believe possess clues as to the nefarious forces behind not just this pandemic, but a host of other so-called “natural disasters” and catastrophes. Meanwhile, protesters are storming the streets and demanding answers, while a rich, morally suspect authority figure — and his equally dubious adult son — promise a miracle vaccine any minute now. You sense there’s another agenda going on, however… especially in regards to the brainwashed, loyal minions doing their bidding. As for the one medical professional who thinks he knows what’s actually going on? Someone seems to be attempting either to conscript him, discredit him — or possibly even something worse.
But enough about the news. Utopia, Amazon’s eight-episode sci-fi thriller that hits the streaming service today, imagines a fanciful world in which superfans discover a lost postscript to a popular comic that may or may not be the key to stopping Armageddon. It’s a work of fiction, based off of a cult British TV series created by The Third Day‘s Dennis Kelly back in 2013 (he’s an executive producer on the American version as well), and an on/off again labor of love for novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-showrunner Gillian Flynn, for almost as long. We probably don’t need to tell you that this show happens to be hitting the airwaves at an odd moment in our nation’s history; in a smart display of cover-our-ass-itude, Amazon has included a disclaimer that notes the show is “not based on an actual pandemic or related events.” Good to know.
It could either be the greatest timing for the series to hit (over-the-top escapism that seems eerily synced up to the Year of Our Eternal Shitshow 2020!) or the absolute worst possible moment to unleash this on an audience (see previous parenthetical). The irony is that regardless of the general public’s mood, you end up with frustrating mediocrity either way. Borrowing the central premise and a few key details of the original, Flynn has crafted a domestic version that blends the source material and her own thematic obsessions. The problem is that, even with its end-of-the-world urgency, this Utopia still feels sluggish, muddled, unfinished. It’s as if someone went to great pains to restore a classic car, added their own custom interior, and then forgot to fill up the tank with gas.
In the beginning, there was merely Dystopia: a wild, phantasmagoric comic that was birthed from the clearly disturbed mind of a mysterious creator. It told the story of a young heroine and her scientist father, held captive by a humanoid bunny named Mr. Rabbit. The girl escaped; the father was did not, and was forced to create horrible biological agents for his kidnapper. And if you looked closely at the artwork, some die-hards suggested, you could find clues and symbols that somehow predicted a host of pandemics, from Ebola to SARS. Such nonsense was dismissed as the crazy ramblings of crackpots — as was the unsubstantiated rumor that there was an unseen, unpublished coda to the series titled Utopia.
When the manuscript for this single-issue sequel shows up in some rando’s cluttered garage, however, the comic community goes crazy. A chance to bid on this rarity is set up during a convention in Chicago, which attracts the attention of a five-person, online-forum group devoted to Dystopia: Samantha (Jessica Rothe), a eco-activist groundskeeper; Ian (Dan Byrd), a nerdy office worker; Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), a twentysomething student who flirts with Ian a lot; a conspiracy theorist named Wilson Wilson (You’re the Worst‘s Desmin Borges); and Grant (Javon Walton), who, unbeknownst to the group, is only 13 years old. They agree to all meet in the Windy City and pool their resources to purchase Utopia. Worst-case scenario, they each get a brief look at this coveted item and meet each other for the first time in person.
Actually — funny story — there is an even–worse-case scenario, in which a powerful, secret organization is keen to get its hands on the book and is willing to kill everyone who’s so much as laid eyes on it. The part about the clues “predicting” real-life viral outbreaks? It’s true. And this unpublished graphic novel may have clues hidden in its pages that foretell of a truly devastating pandemic that has not happened yet. Enter two thugs, Rod (Michael B. Woods) and Arby (Christopher Denham). Both are psychotic and have a facility for torture; the latter seems especially… off, given his shuffling walk, childlike nature, and constant snacking on raisins. They’ll stop at nothing to retrieve the item. “Where’s Utopia?” they ask, before issuing a follow-up question: “Where’s Jessica Hyde?” Give a wrong answer, and it’s good night, forever.
And Jessica Hyde? That’s the name of the little girl in the comic. Like those clues, she’s also real — a feral, kill-or-be-killed fighter played by Sasha Lane (American Honey) who, yes, is in search of Utopia as well. The book may have clues as to where her dad is. Once the manuscript falls into the hands of one of the group’s own, Jessica is hot on their trail. So, for that matter, is the assassin duo.
If you were to print out all of this Amazon show’s per-episode spoiler breakdowns — those constrictive-to-a-fault lists sent to critics that dictate what you can or can’t talk about in a review — you could probably paper one of Jeff Bezos’ mansions several times over. Here’s what we can tell you: The Office‘s Rainn Wilson is a virologist who, once upon a time, discovered a bat-based flu strain in Peru, and is bewildered to see something remarkably similar start showing up in American elementary schools. John Cusack plays a pharmaceutical mogul named Kevin Christie, the sort of billionaire that rides to work on his bike and asks his family, “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?” He’s a philanthropist who projects a plant-a-tree-save-the-planet vibe, but you can immediately sense Christie would happily sell anything bought or processed, buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed. (Cusack, it goes without saying, is one of the better aspects of this series, and you can tell this longtime anti-corporation crusader is having a ball sticking it to this archetype.)
We can also tell you that these two, along with Christie’s Kushner-lite son and right-hand man (Cory Michael Smith), might have a connection to what’s happening in regard to the group; that there’s a massive amount of sometimes thrilling, occasionally gratuitous and always gory violence; that there are shootouts and narrow escapes and clever twists and a lot of twins and Bond villain-level exposition dumps; that you might not want to get too attached to all of the characters here; and that Utopia 2.0 is smart enough to lift a few of Utopia 1.0’s greatest hits, including a yellow vinyl bag that resembles a smiley face and a nasty bit of business involving bleach, a spoon, and an eye.
What we’ll also relay is that you can sit through all eight of these episodes and still feel, as the credits for the last one roll, like you’re waiting for the show to start. While Flynn’s emphasis on things like trauma and parental issues and a coal-dark sense of humor, all of which have informed movies (Gone Girl) and shows (Sharp Objects) based on her work, give the series’ paranoia an intriguing edge, there’s surprisingly little sense of pep to the thriller those elements are attached to here. The constant switching among the three parallel plotlines keeps deflating the tension and momentum for each of them long before they converge. Worse, everyone from heroes to heels feel like traced-over sketches, with a bare minimum of details and kooky-to-creepy quirks filling in for compelling, intriguing characters, much less actual flesh-and-blood people. Both of these snafus affect the group’s story, which is arguably Utopia‘s engine, the worst — you keep waiting for the show to switch back to them when they’re out of the picture, then find yourself wondering why you don’t feel that attached to their fugitives-on-the-run conflicts when they onscreen. And while Lane and Denham gamely try to give their respective sociopaths a soul and a pulse, neither can quite get out of the kill-stare-repeat cycle they’re stuck in — this despite some interesting arcs for both.
There’s a graveyard littered with great U.K. TV shows that have not quite made the trip over the Atlantic successfully, and for every Office or Sanford and Son (yup, it’s based on a British sitcom), there are a dozen Men Behaving Badlys. The American Utopia isn’t a complete failure, given the talent involved and the small touches Flynn & Co. add in (notably the way Christie plays the F.D.A., the media, and his eventual scapegoat). It’s just a huge missed opportunity, and would be even if the original weren’t one of the slyest, strongest, most unsettling sci-fi thrillers to come out of England in the last decade. The fact that Dennis Kelly’s cult show only got two seasons before it could finish its full story is a tragedy; the fact that it’s never been granted a proper run on U.S. television or is streaming here (you can find the occasional burns of its complete run on YouTube, but you didn’t hear that from us) is a crime. If Amazon’s show somehow prompts a slew of viewers to check out the real thing, that’s a huge plus. Otherwise, Utopia just feels like a potential paradise permanently lost.