Every so often, a show comes along that’s genre credibility is unclear on the surface, making the decision of whether or not to cover it somewhat of a calculated gamble. In the case of Utopia, this is one that has paid off.
Indeed, this sense of uncertainty pervades the very atmosphere of the setting – the streets of Utopia are eerily empty, with little given in the way of explanation for this state of play save for snatched mutterings of epidemics and unrest.
The driving narrative details the supposedly prophetic comic-book manuscript known as ‘The Utopia Experiments’ by a disparate bunch of oddball conspiracy theorists, but it’s really just the touch paper for a variety of plot strands and memorable characters, including emotionless, amoral assassin Arby (Neil Maskell), the similarly detached target of his pursuit Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) and harassed public servant Michael (Paul Higgins) that intersect and explode constantly and unpredictably.
Channel 4 has consistently added innovation and excitement to the TV landscape in the form of shows like Misfits, Ultraviolet and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, but Utopia seems to have stepped up to a whole new level. Perhaps its closest touchstone in terms of atmospheric oddness is Twin Peaks, although where David Lynch’s gamechanging serial favoured subtle unease, Utopia deals in far broader, more explicit strokes, whether via a prolonged torture scene or a school-based shooting. It goes where few British shows in recent memory have dared.
The performances are by and large spot on: Maskell is terrifyingly effective as Arby, coming across as the small-screen equivalent of No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. Nathan Stewart Jarrett proves there’s life after Misfits; The Thick Of It’s Higgins turns in an uncharacteristically muted performance, and the likes of Alexandra Roach and Oliver Woollford capably announce their arrival.
Utopia gives nothing away for the viewer expecting an easy ride, but it’s hard to think of a recent British genre show that captures and challenges the imagination quite the way this has. It doesn’t ask to be rewatched; it demands it.
And we are only too happy to oblige…