Amazon's "Utopia" is an at-times maddening, at-times fascinating, but always twisty show that thrives on shocking you. Especially in the hands of showrunner/writer Gillian Flynn (based on a Channel 4 series in the UK by Dennis Kelly), it's been designed in part to push people’s buttons about the kind of stories that you can and can’t tell. For one, in this day it's almost irresponsible to tell a story from the perspective of people who see much of the world through conspiracies—think about the growing movement of QAnon, or those who seriously use the term "plandemic." Now cast them as your heroes. As it uses each big twist and character betrayal to show just how far its own conspiracy goes, "Utopia" becomes even more about trying to break the viewer’s mind. Presented across numerous plot threads, “Utopia” is not for casual viewers, or those unwilling to dive deep into the bleak and batty. It's all part of a massive, playful game by Flynn, and it slowly sucks you in.
“Utopia” starts with the comic book that gives it its name—a meticulously illustrated comic book meant to follow up the previous “Dystopia.” The story of a girl named Jessica Hyde and a figure named Mr. Rabbit, “Dystopia” was treated as a type of decoder for previous pandemics, garnering not just cosplay fans but those who who connected the imagery to different epidemics in real-life, and obsessed about the next installment. In episode one, "Utopia" appears, and a hunt begins. First, it all goes down at a comic convention outside Chicago, in which people like Ian (Dan Byrd), Wilson (Desmin Borges), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), and Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop) try to coordinate their bids to get it together. Things quickly becomes violent when Arby (Christopher Denham) and Rod (Michael B. Woods) show up. No one has even read this comic book yet, found in a random man's home, and yet people will kill for it. The first episode of "Utopia" in particular racks up a big body count, seemingly out of nowhere. Our conspiracy nerds are now targets, and the series puts them on the run as a new virus starts to infect schoolchildren in America.
Despite so much going on, the first couple episodes in the series are bizarrely glacial. It’s in part because of this obsession with the comic book that we don’t share, even if the characters are daffy enough to be amusing in pursuing it, screaming their heads off. Especially with its abrasive violence early on, "Utopia" is unable to create a rich edginess when showing its ruthless side; instead it comes off as forceful. Almost in a way that parodies shows that hem and haw before killing off someone major, “Utopia” does it practically to save space, and moves on.
And then, from out of the story of “Dystopia” pops Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) in real life, looking for answers with the forced help of the nerds. She helps guide the story toward its more fascinating idea of the conspiracy depicted in the comic, and the real backstory behind its mysterious creator. Lane is a true force in the series, impulsive and unflinching when it comes to getting what she wants, while cloaking her own emotional turmoil in a ruthless nihilism. She becomes both the heavy and the emotional center for the story, as the comic book fans are more like a team of sidekicks as they seek to understand the comic and its creator.
“Utopia” has another standout: a worthwhile role from John Cusack, giving one of his best performances in a long while. Playing a role practically suited for his more gentle, whispery presence that some storytellers can render monotone, Cusack is compelling as the mega-rich innovator Dr. Kevin Christie, who runs his shady biochemical business like a big family. His story—which I can’t get into—does bring out the bigger problems of “Utopia,” in that it’s so sprawling that it’s hard to keep track of who knows what when, but Cusack provides a unique depiction of power. You’re not entirely sure you believe his endgame, but you do believe how his paternal approach would be so powerful across many lives, without registering as overtly sinister. When he asks everyone, "What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?", you believe he's genuinely interested in the answer.
A massive show like this relies on its plotting, and "Utopia" splits the difference: it’s so meticulous and also so obvious when it does force some information, or leans into a coincidence to keep the story going. But true to Christie’s question that he asks the people he lords over—everyone here has a clear purpose, and once the stakes of the series move beyond securing a comic book, “Utopia” gets a special kick in watching these pieces converge. By no coincidence, the conspiracies enflame when Rainn Wilson's virologist character, Dr. Michael Stearns, enters the picture thinking that he can help cure a virus that has put entire schools of dying children into quarantine.
From the very beginning, "Utopia" tries to create momentum from its twists. It’s a matter more of whether they’re effective, and at the beginning, they feel more desperate than overtly clever. Even more than with its editing or cinematography, its twisty nature becomes a memorable style itself. And like how style can function in filmmaking, the surprises are flashy enough to cover up that this story isn’t saying much about what it's representing, that each time it goes deeper into its conspiracy, it’s saying little about modern times except “Yeah, but what if?”. The busy madness in “Utopia” is practically its own brand.
There is a staggering cruelty that blankets all of this, all for the sake of not following unwritten rules about what characters can survive a scene, or how they can be killed. Throughout “Utopia” I thought about one of Flynn’s greatest narrative creations, Amy Dunne from “Gone Girl”—a character who in part added to the minuscule statistic about women who make false rape accusations, offending countless people in the process. In “Utopia,” it’s about gleefully stepping over different boundaries, with kids dying, public shootings, and the abruptly killings of plenty of innocent characters. In the earlier episodes, it leads to a complete tonal mess. But by episodes three or four, you more understand the cruel game this story is playing, even if you don’t develop too deep an emotional connection for practically anybody here, never mind share everyone's obsession with this comic book. It’s the cunning nature of “Utopia” that keeps you interested. What else does it have up its sleeve?
The timing for Amazon’s “Utopia” couldn’t be more terrible, or perfect. Here, from a streaming service owned by Jeff Bezos, is a story in part about conspiracies, a virus, and a billionaire who wants to alter how people live. “Utopia” has been in the works for years, but just so happens to arrive at a time to mirror plenty of delusions that can poison the mainstream, the show's chaos only missing a presidential election. You can practically imagine Flynn's smile when Amazon decided to release it during a pandemic.
Seven episodes screened for review.