Reality shows live and die based on their casting, and right now, Utopia is on life support.
Earlier this summer, Utopia executive producer Conrad Green told me, “The intention of this clearly isn’t to make it into some big shoutfest of oppositional views.” Alas, episode one was mostly a shoutfest, heightened by alcohol but fueled by people who supposedly wanted to create a new society together but instead of interacting with each other, immediately go to anger and even physical violence.
I had hope the show would be like original Real World, but instead it seems like modern Real World, (sometimes drunken) fighting that seems more performative than purposeful, eruptions without rational justification. I have no problem at all with conflict, but that has to be earned.
As I’ve written before, I can understand why a show with no built-in mechanism for creating drama would cast strong personalities. However, in retrospect, it’s been evident since mid-summer that the cast would be full of many people who are full of themselves and often behave like obnoxious assholes. Fox brought four “potential” cast members to the Television Critics Association press tour and they were simply annoying; once the show was finally cast, the introductions to the 15 pioneers appeared to be similarly obnoxious.
It’s telling that the cast blew up at each other repeatedly on day one, and even during what seemed like hour one, when Dave went from zero to scary over the lets-create-initial-drama task of having to consolidate their belongings. Instead of talking through his annoyance at the producers for making them do this, potentially bonding the group against an unseen enemy, he just tried to shove all his belongings in the big crate.
But it’s not just him. Few of the cast members demonstrated any desire to coexist with anyone else. And that makes me not want to spend any time with them.
Is there any hope for Utopia?
There was the promise of a better future at the end of the two-hour premiere, when the cast seemed to agree that they’d all been behaving like jerks. “At the end of the day, what we’re doing here is making us all look like fools,” said Red, whose behavior was among the most foolish.
Ironically, considering his past behavior and future behavior, it was Dave who sounded the most rational: “The only problem we really have is speaking out of turn and not respecting each other. I feel like everyone has a voice, everyone should have an opinion, we should all be able to voice that.” Later, he told Red, “What are you really expecting out of this situation? We’re strangers, we don’t even know each other.”
There are other glimmers of hope, too, especially Hex, who seems to be the most capable of bridging gaps and making an effort to connect with others, even those who’ve treated her terribly (Josh). She actually had a rational conversation with pastor Jon, who is not just the kind of man of God who thinks the Bible is the single most important thing a new society needs, but the kind of guy who told her he can’t be around women while they’re in bathing suits because their bodies are so tempting.
That sexism couched in religion was on top of the super-ugly day-one atmosphere in which several women said they did not feel safe. I have no doubt that the conversations and conflict about this is very real and can be very instructive, but it’s also the direct result of casting men who scream at women (Rob to Bella at Josh’s trial: “Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up.”), blame women for their own harassment of women (Josh), and say overtly sexist things (“That’s a good shot for a girl,” Rob said after Hex hit a target dead-on with an arrow). And that’s to say nothing of how many of the people here go straight to violence and threats (Aaron to Red: “[I’ll] put you in this fucking dirt”).
Again, this is 100 percent casting.
Beyond that, Utopia was rather strong. Although the show is filmed entirely with remotely operated cameras, it only occasionally felt like surveillance cameras, and the location is impressive.
I’m often not a fan of narrators but I loved Dan Piraro’s presence and wit. His narration was smartly used, including at the end of an act going into a break, where he appeared after “coming up” footage to correct what he’d just said because the footage contradicted it. It also didn’t shy away from the dysfunction (“the society stumbles unsteadily to life”; “The pioneers had the opportunity to start their own eden, but so far they’ve failed.”)
If the pioneers fail at their attempt, or the show fails, it will absolutely be their fault, but it’ll also be the fault of whoever cast this group. You can put a bunch of feces in a blender with some fresh fruit and hope it’ll come out tasting wonderful, but it’ll always end up as a shit smoothie.