Fiction is often measured on its relevance to the current moment, even though sometimes “relevance” is mistaken for being topical. Utopia, the new Amazon Prime adaptation of a U.K. show, spearheaded by Gillian Flynn, is weirdly, upsettingly topical. It’s a show about a band of misfits trying to stop a devastating virus from causing the end of the world. There’s a lot of talk about vaccines, how viruses spread, viruses leaping from bats into human hosts, the difference between vaccination and treatment, you name it. At one point in a scene set in a quarantine zone, a loudspeaker announces that everyone inside the zone needs to wear appropriate PPE, and my stomach clenched a little when I heard it. There are even little graphic images of viral particles embedded in the show’s central guiding document, a mysterious comic book, virus cells that look like circles surrounded by spikes. Utopia is topical to an uncomfortable degree.
The show is also relevant to the current moment, although none of the virus stuff meets that bar, for me. Even though Utopia is about a virus, and our world is also currently in the middle of a viral pandemic, Utopia has little to nothing to say about viruses, or what happens when they spread. What makes Utopia feel relevant is that it’s also a show about conspiracy theories, about fans obsessively searching a document for clues only they can read, about massive hidden cabals that only a few individuals truly understand the depths of. Those are ideas it’s actually interested in playing with and probing. The virus is just the backdrop.
The rough outline of the show is that a group of online friends is obsessed with a comic book series called Dystopia, and have just discovered that there’s an unpublished sequel, Utopia. For them, the appeal of Dystopia and Utopia isn’t just that they love the books. They believe that the books are full of real clues about the end of the world, clues only visible when you stare at the book with a numerology-like focus on signs and symbols. Wilson (Desmin Borges) is especially good at finding all the clues, and often jabs his finger triumphantly at an image that looks like, say, a simple starscape. It’s not just stars, Wilson will declare, before explaining that the shape of the constellations, the order, the number of stars all add up to a very important clue about the big bad villain, a mysterious figure named Mr. Rabbit. Then off the team will scatter, following Mr. Rabbit even farther down the rabbit hole.
Utopia’s portrayal of conspiracy obsession works in a way its viral themes do not. Its sympathy for the rabbit hole is a much more telling and meaningful bit of current-world relevance. Utopia understands the giddy fervor of decoding all the clues and putting together the pieces, and the lonely thrill of being one of the few people who really gets it, who can really see the clear and stunning truth underneath the calming lies of the everyday. Utopia is a “Wake up, sheeple!” show, and in the age of Q it’s not hard to see the appeal.
The other, more sideways bit of relevance in Utopia is the brutal individualism of it all. The show has a love affair with violence, and it’s also absolutely convinced that violence doesn’t really matter, that systems do not matter, that single lives do not matter, that individual actors have to be responsible for either ending or saving the world but also if someone dies … so what, that’s how it goes. And many, many people die, because it’s the kind of series that will happily lead its audience to believe someone will be a protagonist, and then kill that character within the first few episodes to prove to the audience that they were idiots for being so gullible.
Even for the survivors, Utopia’s obsession with brutality means that basically everyone gets tortured at some point. Eyes get scooped out with spoons and fingernails are yanked out one by one. Personally, my feeling is that it’s really only necessary to watch the first fingernail get yanked; my mind can fill in the other nine fingers! But Utopia does not share that feeling. Utopia is an “all ten fingers” kind of show. Later, someone fills an oven mitt with broken glass and forces someone else to put on the mitt. By that point, overwhelmed by the torture porn and the stinging topicality of a story about a broken vaccine, the glass-filled oven mitt reminded me just a touch of what it felt like to watch the show.
Occasionally, when it’s possible to grind your way through the blood and horror, Utopia makes its way into mesmerizing territory. John Cusack is sort of fascinating as a corporate overlord with mysterious motives, Rainn Wilson is strong as a maligned and misunderstood scientist, and the ragtag team of comic-book nerds is as ragtag as you could ever want. It’s a formula because it works: When the gang does finally pull together, you can’t help but feel some relief, especially because Utopia gives the audience so few other things to feel relieved by.
Aside from the sense that the show kind of wanted to bludgeon me with a two-by-four to make sure I really, really felt all the torture scenes, my frustration with Utopia is that even in the areas where it’s most relevant, its relevance is just exactly wrong. TV shows do not have to be particularly pointed to the current moment and should not be judged as good or bad because they do or do not connect directly to something happening in the world right now. But at the same time, audiences don’t come to fiction in a vacuum. Utopia doesn’t get extra points for being a show about a massive clue-filled cultural conspiracy at the same time conspiracy theorists are marching in the streets and being elected to national government positions. Given the coincidence of those things, though, I just could not get over my sinking response to Utopia’s underlying ideology.
Because in Utopia, all the conspiracies are true. The patterns in the constellations, the hidden images in Mr. Rabbit’s clock, the tiny virus-cell pictures strewn across the comic book — it’s all real. Mr. Rabbit is out to get them, and their Utopia obsession will actually save the world. It’s a fantasy I once had a lot more willingness to live inside. Now it mostly makes me sad.