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John Cusack in Utopia.
John Cusack in Utopia.
Photo: Elizabeth Morris/Amazon


2/5 Stars


A group of social outcasts form a friendship online around a cult comic book, Utopia, and the alleged hidden messages inside it. When a sequel is unearthed, they set off to a comic convention to try to buy the comic from the couple who found it, but they soon find that it has attracted the attention of far more dangerous forces because, as it turns out, the events and the mysteries held within Utopia are true, and it holds within it the key to saving – or destroying - the world. Based on the UK series of the same name.


Back in the halcyon days of 2013, the original Channel 4 version of Utopia's depiction of a deadly worldwide pandemic and an intricate conspiracy around the creation and use of the flu as a biological weapon, may have struck a chord because the swine flu had just narrowly missed ballooning into something far deadlier. But here in 2020, the remake just feels a bit too close to comfort. Not just for its depiction of a Covid-19-like (but much more lethal) pandemic, but because these sorts of ludicrous conspiracy theories may be a lot of fun when understood to be the fictions they are, but are significantly more destructive when taken at face value during a worldwide medical crisis.

If only bad timing was the worst crime perpetrated by this American remake of the British cult favourite. When it comes to TV series, The Office has proven to be the brilliant exception to the rule: American adaptations of British favourites tend to not only pale in comparison to the original series, but are usually irredeemably bad in and of themselves. Utopia may not fare quite as badly as the legendarily awful adaptations of Coupling, the Inbetweeners, the IT Crowd or, heaven help us, Fawlty Towers – from what I've heard anyway: I have managed to avoid all these pointless remakes – but despite some decent bona fides, it certainly doesn't join the Office in the "rare exceptions" list.

Unlike all those abovementioned examples (not to mention stuff like Spaced and Skins), though, I have never seen the original. I'm not sure if it has ever been available in this country in any form other than on import DVD/ Blu Ray. This obviously puts me – and other South Africans - at a certain advantage as I can take in this version without having to worry about comparisons to the beloved original. I looked at the trailer and a couple of clips from the original show, just to have some idea of where Utopia was coming from, and though it seems the US remake retains the same plot and much of the same characters, something clearly got lost in translation.

On paper, this show should, in no uncertain terms, rule. Bad timing aside, its actual premise is rife with potential, and as any Buffy fan can tell you, there is something uniquely compelling about stories of miscasts and underdogs saving the world (a lot). Underdog stories, in general, have a leg up at quickly earning the sympathy of audiences by their very nature. Throw in comic books, pitch-black comedy and fan-favourite names like Rainn Wilson, John Cusack (well, once upon a time) and showrunner, Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and this show should easily win me over, at the very least, even if it proves to be too quirky and "alternative" for mass audiences. Sadly, it did nothing of the sort.

So what, exactly, went so very, very wrong?

All of Utopia's many failings actually come down to the same central flaw: an almost overriding sense of ugliness. Rainn Wilson proves to be the one spark of warmth and humanity as a brilliant infectious disease expert who is uniquely positioned to deal with the pandemic that first plays out in the background of Utopia and then becomes its focus, but is widely ignored by those in power (stop me if you've heard this one before). Everything else around him is just horribly off-putting.

Foregoing the famously colourful aesthetic of the British original for something much grungier, the show simply looks ugly. It's clear that the hyper-real, poppy look of the original was there to balance the cynicism, the shocking violence and the often decidedly unsympathetic characters and without it, the show doesn't just look ugly, it feels ugly too.

It also really, really doesn't help that the only character to make any real impression on the side of the nominal good guys (outside of Rainn Wilson's Mike) is Jessica Hyde, who jumps from the pages of the comic into "real life" with all the charm of a pit of dirt. She's a wild card, she's amoral, she's mysterious, but she's also repulsive and in desperate need of a bath and plenty of therapy. Sasha Lane does throw herself headfirst into the role, playing up all the dirt and bluntness of the character to the max, but it's probably for the best that this show has been enough of a commercial failure to ensure that she doesn't get typecast for playing someone this unpleasant.

The rest of the heroes of the story, on the other hand, are so nondescript that they're barely even worth mentioning, let alone rooting for.    

Things are a bit more noteworthy on the other side of the fence as we have John Cusack pouring on the smile as a character whose loyalties are presumably supposed to be unclear but is so obviously shady that any doubt evaporates within seconds of meeting him in the series' second episode. There's even less moral ambiguity, however, when it comes to a pair of psychopathic hitmen (Christopher Denham and Michael B Woods, both very effective) who are responsible for much of the truly gruesome, disturbing violence in the show.

What this amounts to is a show that asks you to invest hours of your life into something where the bad guys are really awful, and the good guys are even worse, all centred around a mystery that, though decent, isn't quite compelling enough to make up for how grizzly so much of the rest of the show is.

The one thing that could have saved all this is the black humour that apparently courses through the veins of the original but lands on the remake with a deafening thud. It is here that the remake loses the most because the humour does feel very British and it clearly drowned on its trip over the Atlantic. There are plenty of times when you can see the show is trying to be funny, however darkly. However, the end result is anything but.

With a brighter aesthetic and a functioning comedy delivery system, it's not hard to see how even the least savoury elements could have been transformed into an enjoyably demented, blackly comic caper. Instead, it's just that: unsavoury. And a bitter, bitter disappointment, at that.



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