This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
“We’ve got a very odd first episode,” Utopia creator Dennis Kelly said last year about series two, “people are either going to really like it or really say ‘what the fuck did you do that for?’”.
You won’t hear that last question from us, not only because there’s a rude word in it, but also because the opening episode is superb and Kelly’s reasons for going back in time couldn’t be clearer. Documenting the beginnings of Janus, establishing the brutal scope of The Network’s power, and fattening up the emotional lives of Jessica, Arby and Milner gives Utopia series two an unshakeable foundation. Kelly’s “very odd first episode”, it turns out, is nothing short of a masterstroke.
Not one without its risks, it should be said. Kelly wasn’t wrong to be apprehensive about the audience reaction. It doesn’t get much bolder than welcoming loyal viewers back to a new setting, new timeframe, new aspect ratio even, and none of the original cast. Luckily for Kelly, Utopia attracts the kind of deserved devotion that trusts its creative team to deliver striking, ingenious drama, which is just what they’ve done. Again.
Rose Leslie (Game Of Thrones, Downton Abbey) and Tom Burke (The Musketeers, Great Expectations) are so good in episode one that it’s a crying shame it’s the last we’ll see of them. Now we know Carvel and Milner, and understand Janus’ altruistic origin, everything that follows means more. Arby and Jessica’s uncomfortable origin stories not only fill in narrative gaps, but also lend emotional heft to the new series, and retroactively, to the first.
Of all that series one had going for it, character depth and pathos were never its strong suit. Alongside its retcon gags on Thatcher’s ascent to power and incorporation of real news events, this visit to the 1970s gave Utopia what series one was missing: heart.
And focus. Utopia is now much clearer about its message and more confident in its identity. Word has it that Kelly was given the ‘conspiracy hidden in a graphic novel’ premise to work into something of his own making for series one. The result was a blackly comic thriller that had our attention – Marc Munden’s direction and Jane Levick’s design made sure of that – but didn’t quite know where to point it.
Now that the comic book manuscript has faded into the background, Utopia knows exactly what it is: a blackly comic thriller wrapped around a philosophical debate about utilitarianism. With bonus torture, dismembered rabbits and exploding heads.
Episode two, which welcomes back the old gang tomorrow night, bounds off the handsome springboard provided by this superbly shot opener. It returns feeling revived, energetic, and ready to make its audience squirm. I hope we’re all prepared.
Read more about Utopia on Den Of Geek, here.
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