The too obvious adjective for this new utopia is “timely”, because the catastrophe heralded by the pages of the comic book involves an epidemic of influenza that could corrode the pillars of Western society. But that chance – it was all shot last year, so it wasn’t intended as a response to the coronavirus – hampers a story that concerns bio-terror as a manifestation of an invisible corporate conspiracy, so that the reality of Covid-19 is that it’s just about accelerating existing malfeasance and corruption, with conspiracy theorists fighting on the wrong side. There are constant echoes here of what you’d see if you put a news channel instead, but the action is reversed rather than weirdly resonant. These are the right notes in the wrong order, a vaccine against a disease we do not currently suffer from.
But that’s not the worst way Utopia came about at the wrong time. The original series used comics and their obsessive, intelligent fans to foster an exotic, underground vibe; now, seven years and a billion superhero movies later, this world has been sanitized, monetized, and analyzed to the point where the concept cannot have the same astringency.
The main innovation of Episode 1 is that our group of extremely connected geeks meet IRL at a hotel that hosts a large fan convention. A cynical and pampered young couple, having inherited the manuscript along with the sprawling home of a deceased relative, are present with a half-baked plan to flush out the fandom for easy buck by selling the book to the highest bidder. It is an acknowledgment that the subject is a common occurrence, but, much like dealing with the issue of our feeling that myriads of crises are converging towards us uncontrollably, there is no idea how to go with it. ‘observation.
Instead, we get a generic, almost camp flippancy that patronizes fantasy / sci-fi nerds, and makes it hard to distinguish this show’s reluctant group of heroes from the protagonists of any teenage horror Scooby-Doo. The show itself is similar to the people running the auction: it comes into possession of something that it believes has value, without any deep understanding of that value. Flynn, whose previous TV project was Sharp Objects, made a name for himself shining a light on the rotten shadows of families and marriages. It seems she’s not sure what to put on a larger canvas.
The Channel 4 series was a surly underdog with nothing to lose. This version, with its big budget and big American names (John Cusack as mercurial biotech mogul, Rainn Wilson as struggling epidemiologist) helicoptered to make ordinary scenes memorable, feels sanitized by comparison. Ultraviolence comes in cartoonish colors – a burst of film instead of a forbidden gray smelly neon. Unlike the original, which made you feel like a cold hand grabbed your ankle and knocked you down in a puddle of acid, it’s devoid of threat – and spirit.