If anyone came to this show hoping for a gritty update of Thomas More’s 1516 opus depicting a perfect society, they will be sorely disappointed. I can only imagine the furious letters Channel 4 must have received from the Renaissance scholars who actually know what Channel 4 is. This program happens to be a slick and stylish thriller – though not the type that you might imagine from those critically overused adjectives. Utopia is clever and well-paced, but brutal, grubby and coarse at the same time. While the show may have a strong sense of style, it’s not fast cars and sharp suits that dominate, but wide-open spaces, bright filters and a kind of Brito-European aesthetic that actually serves to somehow make the UK look cool.
Utopia is a new drama from Channel 4, boasting a fairly complex plot that revolves around a graphic novel written by a dead mental patient which apparently predicts the future. This then falls into the clutches of a group of internet misfits who then find themselves embroiled in a huge conspiracy. Said conspiracy seems to involve Russian Flu medication, two oddly dressed assassins the Department of Health, a man-made degenerative disease and a mysterious absent figure called Jessica Hyde. However, the intrigue remains at street level with the aforementioned internet chatroom users and a blackmailed civil servant (Jamie from the Thick of it, playing a very different sort of government worker). While this might sound alternately clichéd and self-consciously quirky, it doesn’t come off that way at all, instead becoming a subtle and intricate piece of drama.
Of course there are inevitable comparisons to be made with Misfits, another Channel 4 (ish) show that deals with mysterious and possibly supernatural threats in an aesthetic urban environment. The two shows even share a cast member in Nathan Stewart-Jarret. However, the similarities end there. This is a decidedly classier affair, with its own distinct style of cinematography and tone; the stakes are higher than that of the more blasé Misfits.
Funny and well-written, Utopia is definitely worth a watch, but a word of warning – it’s pretty brutal. At the lighter end of it there’s an awful lot of poverty and many a depressing backstory, and on the other there’s the casual murder of children and extremely unpleasant torture scenes. The genius of Utopia is to throw all of these eggs (and more) into one basket for the very first episode, moving at a breakneck pace to cover more ground than some shows would in half a series (cough Heroes cough). Hopefully they can keep up the pace over the next few weeks, as this is looking like something very special that could set a great new precedent for homemade UK thrillers.