The first series of Utopia was one of the most talked-about British shows of last year. It had an eye-poppingly vibrant visual style, a strange soundtrack, a wry sense of humour, a labyrinthine conspiracy plot and, most controversially, frequent scenes of grisly violence that clashed with the show’s colourful comic-book look and caused complaints from squeamish viewers.
I remember the torture scene at the end of the first episode causing several complaints and prompting shock and outrage in the media the next day, as did a school shooting scene in the third episode, which aired a week after the Sandy Hook tragedy.
Like many popular British dramas, it’s been picked up for a US remake -would it be brave enough to do the same controversial scenes as the original? There’s not much point in remaking it anyway, it’s not like it’s in a foreign language, unless HBO doubts that Americans will understand Becky’s Welsh accent.
It also received a second series, which started this week and, since I’d never seen the whole series, I decided to catch up on what I’d missed and refresh my memory of what’s happened so far.
The two hitmen, one a sharply-dressed torturer with a quiff, the other a baby-faced man in a leather jacket insistently asking “Where is Jessica Hyde?”, are still just as chilling as before. Their mere appearance in a scene can instantly create an atmosphere of dread and menace and if they’ve brought their bright yellow bag of fun that’s never a good sign.
Their targets are a group of unlikely heroes brought together by a legendary graphic novel called Utopia. The graphic novel’s unusual origins and unpublished sequel spawned plenty of conspiracy theories and online discussion. The group meet online to discuss Utopia, and when one of them reveals that he has the manuscript to the sequel they decide to meet up. But when this meet-up is organised the group become targets for the two hitmen, who are working for a mysterious organisation that also wants to get its hands on the manuscript.
Meanwhile, a senior civil servant is blackmailed into doing the bidding of the same organisation by a Russian who is threatening to expose the civil servants’ affair, which would ruin his political career and his life.
All of these characters quickly find themselves scared, confused, hopelessly lost and out of their depth, as the organisation that seems to have people in high places everywhere tries to track them down, manipulate them, or kill them. Nowhere is safe.
The scenes of violence still shock, though I noticed that during the torture scene that concluded the first episode on 4oD it occasionally cuts to a black screen just before the worst parts – did it do that when it aired? Surely I would have noticed? Or did I look away? Either way it’s still horrific – you can’t see the worst bits, but you can still hear them.
It’s very effective, and it’s similar to the scene near the end of Se7en where they reveal what’s in the box. It’s a disturbing scene but, remarkably, it never actually show the box’s contents. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who insist that it did and how horrible it was, but no, it leaves the imagery up to your imagination.
Utopia racks up an astonishing body count in such a short amount of episodes as our heroes are forced to commit fairly un-heroic acts to survive while on the run, and the network which is simultaneously trying to stop them and carry out a villainous plot nationwide quickly shows that it has no qualms with killing innocent people.
It’s not always an easy watch, but it’s a good one, and it has unexpected moments of wry humour to make the dark subject matter and violent scenes more palatable. It also has a bright and colourful style that is unlike anything else on television and makes everyday British scenery look stunningly pretty and almost otherworldly.
This style is something which I hope the remake keeps, though the remake’s director, David Fincher, is known for using grimy yellow filters and moody darkness in most of his films, so maybe the style will be drastically changed in the HBO version. That would be a shame. Utopia‘s cinematography and over-saturated visuals are what makes it really shine.
Utopia is on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4. This week’s double-bill and all of series one is on 4oD. If you don’t have time to watch 6 hours of television to catch up to series two and don’t mind spoilers, here’s a three-minute recap.