Let me start with a confession. Despite writing in American English, I am in fact British. I've been working at Moviepilot for almost a year, and in that time I've been dutifully putting z's in words where s's should be, and omitting the 'u' from color. I've been calling trousers pants and begrudgingly stopped referring to things as 'bollocks'. Of course, everyone here has known my dark Britannic secret — my bad teeth and thoroughly charming accent gave my origins away instantly, but now you guys know too. Phew, I feel much better.
But now it is time to embrace this newly reacquired national identity. Although I think it's fair to say the US is the indomitable home of great television, Britain is still a plucky little upstart that punches above its weight — and no I'm not solely talking about Doctor Who and Sherlock. Britain has some great homegrown TV shows which rarely get to make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. To rectify this fact, I've decided to create a weekly article showcasing one truly Great British TV series at a time. It'll be a chance for me to show our rebellious cousins across the Pond that we're not only good for tea, Downton Abbey and delightfully small dogs.
First up is Utopia, a Channel 4 conspiracy thriller which deftly combines suspense, action, comedy and heartbreak into one complex but gripping tale. At its core, Utopia is about a gang of under-prepared youngsters finding themselves pitted against an all-pervasive and insidious corporation which controls Britain through a system of murder, blackmail and misinformation.
How did they find themselves in this situation? Well, they had the bad luck to be members of a forum dedicated to a mysterious and unusual comic book. Named The Utopia Experiments, the cult graphic novel comes from unclear origins and is rumored to be drawn by a manic and disturbed individual. Some also claim the comic book has done a 'bit of a Nostradamus' and predicted the worst disasters of the last century. When one of the forum members comes across a manuscript of the much sought after sequel, the gang agree to come together to share the spoils. Unfortunately, they're not the only ones interested in the manuscript, and before long a shadowy and powerful organization, known only as The Network, is hot on their trail.
From then on, the drama becomes a nerve-racking chase with more twists and turns than a really twisty-and-turny rollercoaster. The group, which comprises a great selection of young actors, includes real standout performances of some highly stylized characters. Of particular note is as Wilson Wilson, a survivalist geek and conspiracy buff who finds himself thrown into an intrigue beyond even his imagination, and as Jessica Hyde, a kick-ass, but disturbed, young woman with a wild stare and a mysterious past. But perhaps the best character of all is the enigmatic Arby: A slightly overweight leather-jacket-clad assassin who takes to shooting people in the head with an extremely emotionless and Machiavellian approach. With his trademark heavy breathing, laconic speech and chocolate coated raisins, Arby becomes one of the defining characters in Utopia — but just like everyone else, he isn't quite as he seems.
This dynamic becomes one of the running themes of Utopia, just as you think you understand a character or situation, something else emerges which throws all of your previously held assumptions into a spiral. Utopia certainly doesn't operate in black and white. Good guys turn bad, and bad guys often show themselves as having a propensity for doing good. Without giving too much away, Utopia questions the lengths you'd go to to ensure the benefit of 'the greater good'. Halfway through the series, I honestly found myself reassessing the motives and actions of those labeled as the 'bad guys'. Their plans for the future of society may be genocidal, but they might also save us from ourselves.
Visually, Utopia also has a stunning style. It features an over-saturated color palette that mimics the vivid and exaggerated tones of comic books. Grass looks so green it almost seems irradiated, while the vibrant hues of characters' irises often leap from the screen. And now, to detract from the pretentiousness of that previous sentence, I will point out Utopia also features swearing. Lots of swearing.
Seriously, if you're sensitive to these kind of things, Utopia might not be for you. It features 11-year olds uttering profanities what would make a grown pirate blush with embarrassment, while scenes of awkward sex and torture (not at the same time) might not be for everyone. This is definitely not Doctor Who, that's for sure. But having said that, Utopia's often explicit scenes make it feel much more real, despite it's 'comic book world'. If you just witnessed someone get executed in cold blood, you'd probably drop a few f-bombs too. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting this is territory, but Utopia doesn't shy away from approaching some pretty controversial, but contemporary, issues. One scene in particular might send some sensitive viewers heading for the remote, however the violence is rarely without consequence and is not fetishized or glorified. As executive producer, Jane Featherstone explained:
The drama is exploring the dehumanising effect of brutality on children. It is a stylized piece, but it also shows the consequences of violence, and that becomes clear across the entire six episodes.
Yes, that's right. Like most British series, Utopia has a minuscule number of episodes compared to US shows. One season of six one-hour episodes aired in early 2013, while a second has been commissioned by Channel 4.
Ultimately, Utopia is a difficult beast to define, but if I had to, I'd describe it as Fringe meets Twin Peaks, with a bit of Kick-Ass thrown in for good measure. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you really should check it out. Unfortunately, for the conscientious consumers among you, finding a legitimate copy of Utopia to stream online might be a bit of a challenge. It is all available on Channel 4's on-demand service, but unless you plan on visiting the UK anytime soon, you won't be able to access it from the US. However, the DVD is available to buy for multi-region DVD players. It might be tricky to track down, but it's definitely worth the effort. And now, if you're still not persuaded, here's the trailer:
So, that's it for the first week of Made in Britain. If you enjoyed it and want to be updated with future weekly editions add my Twitter feed @MarkMoviepilot. Next week I'll be discussing Derren Brown: Apocalypse. A show in which a famed British illusionist literally makes a member of the public believe they're living in the zombie apocalypse. It is as good as it sounds and you'll have never seen anything like it. That I can guarantee.
What do you think? How does Utopia sound to you? Have you seen it already? Do you have a favorite British series? Get discussing in the comments section below.