Every year I try to watch more British TV, but recent offerings of anything other than light comedy/drama for a Sunday evening have been extremely disappointing. Last year’s BBC spy drama Hunted failed to really catch the imagination and I’ve not even bothered writing reviews for some of the other offerings such as the borderline ridiculous Ripper Street. Finally however, Channel 4 have brought something interesting to the table.
Utopia is about a small group of ‘normal’ people who find themselves thrown together and deeply embroiled in what’s looking to be a giant international conspiracy of some sort. So far, so standard, but the hook here is that there’s a graphic novel called Utopia which may hold the clue to the whole thing, there’s a pair of very bad guys who certainly seem to think it does. The gradual revealing of the storyline is well paced through the first episode, which at an hour and a half (including adverts) is just long enough to get you completely engrossed, but not so long as to overload you with information that you get lost in.
The show is incredibly well shot. The colours and lighting are vibrant and there’s some beautiful use of slow motion and creative framing that makes the whole thing just fascinating to watch. Balancing that thoughtful direction though is some brutal violence, made all the more effective by the extraordinary casualness of it. The quirkiness of the bad guys contrasts very well against the normalness of everyone else.
By making the show about regular people, it’s instantly more approachable than Hunted, and by only giving us the briefest of introductions to them before chaos unravels it gives us a chance to get to know them organically. I didn’t recognise a single cast member, which mean there’s no inherited expectations which is very refreshing. They all do an excellent job reflecting the disbelief at the circumstances they find themselves in, but also finding moments of humour and lightness.
It’s a six episode series, and I’m not sure whether the intention is for it to be a one off or an ongoing programme, and I love not knowing that! The pilot episode kept me completely riveted throughout, it’s fresh and original and felt like exactly what I’d been waiting for from British TV. It’s not trying to emulate successful series from America or trying to piggy back on successful shows from other channels, it’s just doing its own thing and it’s absolutely fascinating. I would warn that there are scenes that are very violent and not for the squeamish, but even if you have to close your eyes and hide behind a cushion for those bits (they’re well telegraphed) you can still enjoy and appreciate the rest of the show
Utopia is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays and is available on 4OD
The Guardian has an episode by episode analysis and review (mild spoilers): Utopia, written by Dennis Kelly, is a work of brilliant imagination, a murky labyrinth of a conspiracy thriller that traps you from the opening scene
Den of Geek (spoiler free): Kelly’s agile script steers between moments of thriller-style tension, knockabout sex comedy and, towards the end, a violent scene so brutal I felt (rightly, I should say) nauseated watching it.
Telegraph (spoilers): Still, if this first episode was allusive to a fault, and rather self-consciously provocative, it was also gripping stuff.