Back in college, after a boozy night of Mario Kart, we used to stumble over to Kerbey Lane Cafe, an all-night diner near campus. Taking our three or four semesters of surface-level knowledge, we would argue for hours and hours over the merits of various political, economic, and sociological systems. Utopia, Fox’s latest reality show slash social experiment, which reportedly cost $50 million, is as deep, concise, and enlightened as those drunk diner conversations were—that is to say, not at all. Despite potential, anthropological or otherwise, Utopia fails to deliver on almost every one of its lofty promises.
The premise is not “so simple” as host Dan Piraro, dressed like a dapper Waluigi, repeatedly claims. Fourteen strangers were chosen out of 5,000 (which seems like an awfully low number) to live, for a year, away from their loved ones, and create their own society, while being taped 24/7. It turns out this is a difficult task, especially when many of the 14 Utopians are absolutely bonkers. Far from reinventing the reality genre, Fox doubles down on broad stereotypes that even The Real World ditched last millennium.
For obvious reasons, the dynamism of the cast determines the success of such a loosely structured show, and for less obvious reasons, Fox chose a Whitman’s sample of political stereotypes. The cast’s beliefs are so one-note it feels like they were all chosen from rejected attendees of presidential election town halls or your mother-in-law’s Facebook feed. Red is a self-proclaimed “backwoods hillbilly” who has no teeth. Jersey Bob proudly hails from New Jersey and is “a real American,” not a “liberal douchebag.” The only biographical information we get about Nikki is that she is looking for a tantric sex partner.
The most compelling cast member is Preacher Jon, who is a preacher and whose name is Jon. Jon went on to Utopia to baptize his fellow Utopians, a fact he states without hesitancy. However, he becomes tempted by the rampant nudity taking place (it seems like a main requirement for all female Utopians was willingness to hang out topless) and so he sings “Jesus Is The Answer” with his back turned on the seven sets of boobies. Preacher Jon is offended by the bizarre and graphic claim from one Utopian that Joseph “beep beep beep beeped” Mary. But, really, that’s all we know about Preacher Jon. Again, the lack of direction hurts the show tremendously. Oddly, religion becomes the main theme of the two-hour episode. But, like most two-minute conversations about religion between strangers, it is mostly uninformed yelling that resolves nothing.
The biggest problem Utopia faces throughout is its drama is never resolved or revisited. Because of the completely loose structure (they have a year to design a society, whatever that may entail), there are no real story lines. Utopia fails on the most basic of narrative levels. It doesn’t help at all that there are no cameramen on the premises, so all camera shots are Kevin Smith-level of static. The editing does the show no favor either, cutting between one awkward shot to another, before cutting to a scenic, out-of-place pan of “utopia.” I understand not wanting to have cameramen roaming around, but it makes the visuals as exciting as watching security camera footage. Shows like Top Chef and The Real Housewives have demonstrated the dramatic powers of camera work and editing within the reality genre; it’s disappointing that in 2014, Utopia did not learn this lesson.
The most realized story of the first two hours involves “sexy beast” (his words) and general contractor (“I’m not a handyman”) Josh, who consumes a large quantity of whiskey and adopts a Russian accent. He then has an incident of attempted sexual assault. This is on night one. Josh grabs the face of Hex (a Midwestern huntress) and attempts to kiss her. She rebuffs him and there’s an appropriate level of outrage over his behavior from many people. This being a brand new society, this sexual assault incident is a perfect introduction to whatever judicial system they make up.
Luckily, there’s a lawyer, who does not seem to have ever set foot in a courtroom. There is a trial the next day (day two), which leads to Josh being on probation (no alcohol for 90 days, some other things), but not before two people absolutely freak out for no discernible reason. And then come back. And then leave again still angry. The narrator, dressed like a contestant on a pick-up-artist show, even needles the whole idea, calling it a “kangaroo court.”
This bizarre tonal whiplash happens throughout. A moment of peace between the women (“Your cycle is gonna sync up with the moon”), is intercut with Red, the hillbilly, going nuts and calling a woman “a dumb bitch.” The second incident of gendered attacks in two days. Cut back to the peaceful meditation. Back to Red cursing and yelling about possibly leaving the show. Why are these intercut? Any drama in Red’s bullshit reaction is sucked out by the humorous cuts, but any humor in the juxtaposition is robbed by what seems to be genuinely crazy levels of rage and despicable behavior from a grown man.
Utopia makes no time, either for want of footage or poor producing, to explain any of the decisions of the Utopians. This is easily the most frustrating aspect of Utopia. There is a tremendous amount of telling over showing, and without the utilization of confessionals (those straight-to-camera gab sessions found in most reality shows), these tellings come off as awkward and unfulfilling.
Very early in the episode, one character shouts across the room at a woman, “Are you pregnant?” She reveals, to only him and the audience, that she is! Way later in the show, after no consequences, no one talking about it, no mention of it, no payoff on this dramatic irony, she addresses the “rumors” to the group and reveals her pregnancy. Music plays and everyone is excited (it’s hard to gauge subtler reactions because of the fixed camera angles, but we are to assume Preacher Jon is not happy with an unwed, lesbian pregnant lady). There is no story there. There is no beginning, middle, or end. This type of thing happens constantly throughout the show.
“There’s no time for drama,” someone says, but there is literally only time for drama! They have very little to do! Will they have “democracy or a dictatorship?” the narrator asks, dressed like a skinny Gene Shalit, but that question is never even addressed. They have a year to create a society from nothing, but it’s rendered as interesting as watching someone play a turn of Civilization 5. Decisions are made, fights are resolved, and we don’t see any of it. We have no idea how or why these decisions, the very premise of the show, are getting made.
Because, above all, and most dangerously, Utopia is boring. The cast are caricatures and stereotypes, limiting any meaningful narrative growth, not that the show gives the structure or space for narratives of any sort. What’s left is a hodgepodge of outbursts and blanket statements that never receive attention, much less resolution. The promise here was a freeform show filled with interesting people that continue to reveal themselves in how they choose to create a society. Instead, we are given random insanity that can’t even be considered anarchy. At least anarchy would be interesting.
- If you’re a masochist, or just super creepy, you can stream feeds of Utopia 24/7. To watch more than five minutes at a time, you’ll have to pay $4.99 per month. Move over, Netflix! Fox has your number.
- “Don’t poo poo someone’s utopia,” Bella says while talking about the compound’s sewer system and simultaneously winning the Emmy for Best Pun Ever.
- Is it possible this entire thing is a Nathan For You episode about reality shows?
- A random sampling of job titles of Utopians: Unemployed, Survivalist Prepper, Chili Farmer/Musician, Moonshiner, Lawyer
- It is truly strange that host Dave Piraro was dressed like a cross between Sinbad and a penny-farthing.