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Amazon's Utopia is spectacularly ill-timed: The Gillian Flynn drama shouldn't have been released in 2020

  • Gillian Flynn's remake of Dennis Kelly's 2013 British series of the same name features a conspiracy theory and pandemic that plays very differently in 2020 than it did in 2013, says Matthew Dessem. "We are in the middle of an actual pandemic, a staggering number of Americans sincerely believe that that pandemic is a politically motivated hoax, and an equally staggering number believed vaccines were harmful years before COVID-19 emerged," says Dessem. "It’s not the filmmakers’ fault we’re in this mess; it’s not their fault so much of the public is superstitious and gullible; and it won’t be their fault if Utopia gives some dumba** the confidence they need to quit wearing a mask and infect and kill you or the people you care about. Make whatever art you like—the audience isn’t your problem! But if you’ve made something about a scrappy group of kids uncovering a giant conspiracy, and it turns out that in the time since you finished shooting, that exact conspiracy theory has suddenly revealed itself to be (A) believed by a significant portion of the population and (B) deadly, it might not be a bad idea to push the release date. Even if everyone who sees Utopia is capable of distinguishing fact from fantasy—and that’s vanishingly unlikely in a nation that is sending QAnon followers to Congress—it’s impossible to enjoy a story where the heroes convince themselves that shadowy forces have manufactured a phony pandemic to trick people into taking a dangerous vaccine when those exact beliefs are helping to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans...If the country ever gets to the other side of this pandemic, there may come a time when Utopia can be appreciated for what it is: an inferior American copy of a pretty good British TV show. But 2020 is not that time. We wouldn’t have to be living in a perfect society for Utopia to play the way it’s supposed to, but we’d need to build something better than this. If any shadowy elites have a plan to get us there, this is your moment."


    • Utopia combines every 2020 nightmare into one chilling fantasy: "Sure, there are significant differences between the world of the show and our own current nightmare; for one thing, the characters are still able to gather in public, sans masks, without fear of contagion, because the public health system has managed to cordon off infected patients from the rest of the population (Alas for us.)," says Sonia Saraiya. "The American version of Utopia, from Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, adapts Dennis Miller’s 2013 series from the U.K. to a future just a few months or years ahead of ours, where mysterious viruses are so commonplace that they’ve become a part of the fabric of everyday life. I haven’t seen the much-lauded British original, so I can’t compare the two. (The Channel 4 series is not available in the U.S.) But with its sheer disturbing relevance—and a psychological turn of the screw that one might expect from showrunner Flynn—the American Utopia is so twisted that I found it hard to look away. Maybe this is a reflection of how deeply despairing I have been over the past few months; how cynicism, despite my best efforts, has lodged permanently at the base of my brain. But the bleakness of Utopia—reportedly not even as violent as the original British series—resonated with my worst fears about the world, the ones that have been very hard to turn off as 2020 has continued to unfold."
    • Utopia is irresponsibly bad television: "It’s a weak paranoia drama for the anti-vaxxers and QAnon cultists of the world," says Samantha Nelson, adding: "Gillian Flynn’s update of the British series Utopia also centers around a pandemic, but it doesn’t offer any of the comfort, only paranoia. In different times, the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author’s eight-episode show, which releases on Amazon on Sept. 25, would just be a mediocre conspiracy thriller with a cartoonishly evil villain, passive and inconsistent heroes, and a plot that drags on too long. But in an era where some people genuinely believe COVID-19 is a hoax perpetrated by Bill Gates and the liberal deep state, airing a show about a plague engineered by a billionaire tech philanthropist and a global cabal feels irresponsible."
    • Utopia fails to say anything unique about our current moment: "The series incorporates a slew of thematic elements that are eerily timely—an increasingly devastating pandemic, for one—but an overreliance on brutal violence masks the fact that Utopia doesn’t have much to say about the corporate overreach or government listlessness that inspired the show’s concept," says Roxana Hadadi, adding: "Utopia relies on at least one scene of staggering violence per episode to move the plot forward, but all that does is underscore how the show fails at building the apocalyptic stakes."
    • It's impossible to discuss Utopia without mentioning its timely premise, but it shouldn't be called "timely": "By and large, 'timely' is a terrible word to use in the context of a review," says Ben Travers. "There are obvious exceptions, when dissecting the weight of an excellent program is tied directly to its relevance, and before my pesky little trolls dig up eight old articles where I improperly lean on that particular adjective, I’ll admit: I’ve used it. We’ve all used it. When you watch a show or film that feels particularly relevant to headline news, it’s almost instinctual to throw the word “timely” into your own headline. People need to know that this one is different than so much of the mindless entertainment out there, because this show speaks to the moment. But does that mean it’s good? Bad? Effective? Affecting? 'Timely,' on its own, doesn’t really tell us anything qualitative, and even as a context clue, the word has been hollowed out by misuse. Commentators who use 'timely' to describe narratives about police misconduct or racial injustice simply haven’t been paying attention long enough. Overuse is a problem, too. As long as you’re writing about what’s going on in the world today — and, one way or another, we all are — everything is timely. Trump’s election really crystallized that concept, as so many stories post-November 2016 felt related to the president, his supporters, or the many problems connected to both. When your mindset is dominated by a common concern, all roads lead to the same spot. A drama about the systematic oppression of women? Timely. A comedy about political sniping? Obviously timely. A show about dragons and warfare and full frontal nudity set in a made-up fantasy land? Still timely! The point being, if you sit with something long enough — whether it’s living under a misogynistic fascist or surviving a global pandemic (with a death toll that’s been exacerbated by that same misogynistic fascist!) — then it clouds your every thought. You see everything through that fog, and thus everything you see is foggy."
    • Utopia is topical to an uncomfortable degree: "Fiction is often measured on its relevance to the current moment, even though sometimes “relevance” is mistaken for being topical," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "Utopia, the new Amazon Prime adaptation of a U.K. show, spearheaded by Gillian Flynn, is weirdly, upsettingly topical." VanArendonk adds: "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."
    • Utopia is too hackneyed to be timely, too grim to be escapist: "The new Amazon drama Utopia was made for a different dystopia than the current one," says Inkoo Kang, adding: "Utopia is an adaptation by Gone Girl novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn from a 2013-2014 British series of the same name (created by Dennis Kelly, who serves as an executive producer here). But the arrival of its eight-part debut season amid the COVID-19 pandemic makes rooting for its heroes — whose real-life counterparts believe that the Chinese government designed the coronavirus and/or that nefarious forces are spreading the disease via 5G networks — even harder. Less appealing still is the now-tired premise of super-fans suddenly finding themselves in their favorite stories — and realizing that being a part of the adventure isn’t anywhere near as fun as reading about it. Of course, even the most distasteful or hackneyed starting point can serve as the origin of an incredible journey. But Utopia’s first seven episodes demonstrate that there’s not enough specificity to the characters or fascination in the season-long mysteries to provide the bloody escapism that Flynn intended."
    • Utopia is the latest example of the guessing game as an end in itself: "Pandemic, conspiracy and doomsday prepping are all fodder for a narrative puzzle that’s only beginning to come into focus as the season ends," says Mike Hale. It’s a pale shadow of the genre’s exemplars — Mr. Robot, The Prisoner, certain Christopher Nolan movies — but if you like this sort of thing, here it is. I like this sort of thing quite a bit, but Utopia, which was developed and written by Gillian Flynn (after passing through the hands of David Fincher and HBO), never got me on board. With a story that takes comic-book fetishism and the excesses of fan culture and embeds them in a high-body-count action-thriller, it’s a long way in subject matter from Flynn-related projects like Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, both adapted from her novels. But it has some important, and off-putting, things in common with them: a nasty chilliness and a lack of empathy for its characters, who are blunt instruments Flynn uses to deliver shocks to the strapped-in audience."
    • Utopia is extremely dystopic, cruel and unrelenting, yet it makes more sense than the current state of America: "In a lot of ways, the rolling apocalypse in this alternate, ugly world makes more sense, and is therefore less disturbing, than our own ongoing Armageddon," says Noah Berlatsky, adding: "In Utopia, the president does not get on national television and recommend that people might be able to protect themselves from the virus by injecting bleach. Nor does the government downplay the dangers of the virus for months. Nor do political leaders suggest that grandparents should sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy. For that matter, the virus in Utopia is a lot less deadly than the coronavirus. In the show, dozens of children die. This is obviously horrible, but pales in comparison to the over 200,000 people and counting who have died from Covid-19 in the U.S., and more than 940,000 worldwide."
    • Utopia ends up feeling like a decently entertaining version of stories that have been told before: "In modifying Dennis Kelly’s original UK drama to fit an an American mindset, Flynn, who wrote every episode, expands upon a few key themes: an intrinsic distrust of the government, slashes of shocking violence, and her characters’ deep-seated longing to be heroes — or at the very least, to have a greater purpose," says Caroline Framke. "These represent sharp enough instincts that it’s a bit of a shame when Utopia spends so much time down the rabbit hole where the conspiracies are accepted as facts. The moments when the show draws a line between this underground and the banalities of everyday life are smart and chilling on their own. In that respect, it’s also hard not to imagine what Utopia might have looked like if Flynn got to work again with Gone Girl director David Fincher, as was originally the plan for the series. Together, Flynn’s acidic writing and Fincher’s chilly direction have proved a potent blend that could have made this version of Utopia more uniquely unsettling. So while ably directed in the end by Susanna Fogel, J.D. Dillard and Toby Haynes, Utopia teeters on the edge of conspiracy thriller and pure comic book energy without ever fully committing to either. The result could be a fascinating mashup of sensibilities, but instead, the series flattens and settles into a more basic middle ground."
    • Utopia sanitizes the British original: "The too-obvious adjective for this new Utopia is 'timely,' since the doom that the comic’s pages foretell involves a flu-like outbreak that might corrode the pillars of western society," says Jack Seale. "But that serendipity – it was all shot last year, so it wasn’t conceived as a response to coronavirus – hinders a story that’s concerned with bio-terror as a manifestation of an unseen corporate conspiracy, when the reality of Covid-19 is that it’s merely accelerated existing malfeasance and corruption, with the conspiracy theorists fighting on the wrong side. There are constant echoes here of what you’d see if you put a news channel on instead, but the action is jarringly flipped rather than eerily resonant. It’s the right notes in the wrong order, a vaccine for a disease we’re not currently suffering from. But that’s not the worst way in which Utopia has arrived at the wrong moment. The original series used comic books and their obsessive, intelligent fans to foster an exotic, underground vibe; now, seven years and a billion superhero films later, that world has been sanitised, monetised and analysed to the point where the concept can’t have the same astringency."
    • Dan Byrd on Utopia's pandemic vs. the real pandemic: "It's definitely happening on a different scale than what we've been experiencing. It's a national pandemic ... so this is happening on a much smaller scale. Also the context of this show is so wildly different than what we've been experiencing."
    • John Cusack on going from Utopia to a real-life pandemic: "It felt timely, in a tragic way of saying that," he says. "We felt we were a step away from these things happening. If something is absurd, it indicates how things might be down the road a couple of blocks. But this felt like, Oh sh*t, we’re on the same block!"
    • Gillian Flynn on remaking Dennis Kelly British series Utopia: "I’m not a fan of remaking something just because the original was really cool," she says, adding that she approached the remake as a "beautiful DNA." “That’s the only way I could have it become my own, by not constantly looking back,” she says. “I took two lines from Dennis’s original, and everything else I rewrote. He was incredibly cool about me getting in there and mucking around in his world, which is more than I could say for how I would’ve been if someone had taken Sharp Objects and been like, ‘And now I’m going to do anything I want with it, ha ha!"
    • How Utopia went from rejected by HBO to an Amazon series: HBO was willing to pay about $80 million, but David Fincher needed a $90 million budget. In 2018, Flynn presented Amazon with a nine-episode version of Utopia, and it was ordered to series. For budgetary reasons, it dropped from nine to eight episodes, and Flynn changed the setting from 10 years in the future to present-day.

    TOPICS: Utopia, Amazon Prime Video, Dan Byrd, Dennis Kelly, Gillian Flynn, John Cusack