This review contains spoilers.
In 2012, author Neil Gaiman told a group of arts graduates that freelancers get jobs thanks to three attributes: a) their work is good, b) they deliver on time, and c) they’re easy to get along with. You don’t even need all three, he said, “people will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
TV drama has three such columns to tick. It succeeds magnificently when a) its premise and plot are engaging, b) its characters and cast are fantastic, and c) it looks the absolute business (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Life on Mars, for instance, would all score a full house in my book). If a drama ticks just two of the three by having say, a gripping plot and beautifully composed shots but thinly drawn characters – you see where I’m going with this -, it can still be great viewing.
Utopia, for the purposes of clarity, remains great viewing. The twisting conspiracy premise is a hugely effective hook, and looks-wise, the show’s a stunner. That those two assets pick up the slack created by a group of characters and performances it’s hard to care much about only emphasises their strength.
If there’s been a more stylishly composed drama than Utopia on Channel Four in recent years then I missed it. In its quiet, establishing moments, Mark Munden and team’s gorgeous composition and flashes of acid colour inform the show’s eerie, uncanny atmosphere – who needs sympathetic players when something as bucolic as a field of gently waving lavender can be imbued with such horrible menace?
Not that all of the characters failed to move me. Adeel Akhtar is charismatic, funny and likeable as Wilson, even with half a face on display, and his double act with Alexandra Roach’s Becky is as warm as Utopia gets. Unfortunately for this episode, both were side-lined in favour of Ian and the enigmatic Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), who remains a mystery even after fifty minutes in her company. The laughs disappeared along with Wilson and Becky, but then again, that hot pink tracksuit aside, episode two didn’t give us very much to laugh at.
The deaths were back, and while no one scene made the horrific impact of last week’s chilli/bleach/sand/spoon extravaganza, there was no shortage of brutality and gore. A man was swiftly turned into sandwich paste by a passing lorry; a woman’s brains decorated the UPVC windows of a posh conservatory; a ‘tramp’ who knew too much was choked to death in a public loo, and a family of four met their (blessedly unseen) demise at the hands of Arby and his gas canister.
As the trouble-making Jessica Hyde, newcomer O’Shaughnessy was another blank type for Utopia. A deadly, capable hacker with a Ramona Flowers haircut and a Lisbeth Salander vibe, she took charge of the hapless forum gang, broke into houses, walked slowly away from explosions, and carried out armed robberies with unblinking competence. Of course her true cards wouldn’t be revealed this early on, but it would be nice to know whether her character even had a hand to conceal at this point.
Who knows though? As the episodes progress, we might grow fond of Nathan Stewart Jarrett’s statuesque-in-more-ways-than-one Ian and O’Shaughnessy’s impassive Jessica, but for the time being, perhaps it’s best just to concentrate on working out exactly what’s going on.
Jessica’s arrival moved things a notch or two further on the ‘how is this all connected’ scale. The daughter of the man who wrote The Utopia Experiments, and separated from him since the age of four, Jessica explained that her father had once been the founder of an international group established to “do things that governments couldn’t do”: The Network.
The Network was supposed to disband after the Cold War, but was sustained by a founding member known only by the pseudonym of Mr Rabbit (explaining the graphic novel’s Devil-Rabbit hybrid character) after Jessica’s father was committed to psychiatric care. That’s how the creator of The Utopia Experiments was able to predict the BSE crisis and the genetic mutation for a disease that hadn’t been discovered yet: he helped to create them, and was driven mad in the process.
The Network, we now know, has a foot in the CIA, the Russian mafia, and Whitehall, and it’s as keen to get its hands on Jessica as it is the evil-project predicting manuscript. The latter evidently contains details of The Network’s next big mwahaha plan, part of which appears to be deliberately introducing a deadly strain of Russian Flu into the UK (and profiting from the purchase of vaccine on the side). The flu epidemic is a very competently played bit of Utopia’s plot, helped in no small measure by great turns from Paul Higgins and tantalising doses of Stephen Rea.
Elsewhere, little Grant was welcomed into the forum fold and put a new friend in enormous danger by leaving the manuscript in her hands. Enough child death now Utopia, please don’t let the little sweary girl fall foul of Arby’s canister…
The episode’s closing moments, while not as inevitable and satisfying as last week’s “I am Jessica Hyde” cliff-hanger, certainly ensured our return for the next instalment. Welsh Becky’s clandestine phone call marks her as a potential Network employee, and thus part of the enemy (does that explain Jessica’s reluctance to involve her in the manuscript chase?). There’s another option though, and one in which her character retains our sympathy: the dead dad story was true, and finding herself the inheritor of a degenerative disease, the Network are securing Becky’s cooperation with promise of a cure.
So far, Utopia is delivering on its early, gripping promise. If it can pull the (Devil) rabbit out of the hat though and deliver some characters to invest in to boot, it could be even better. Until next week.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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