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Why Utopia will actually be different

Why Utopia will actually be different
The entrance to Fox's Utopia. (Photo by Adam Rose/FOX)

Fox’s Utopia debuts tonight, and there have been a lot of words used to describe it: It’s a risky! bold! different! expensive! (The Wrap said well over $50 million.) pure! (I’m so tired of reading John de Mol quotes about how pure this show is.) social experiment!

The last phrase is so overused in reality television that it’s virtually meaningless, but this may actually be the right show for that phrase and the other terms, too.

No one has seen Utopia yet, but it’s conceived as more cinema verite than any broadcast reality show in recent memory. It’s not formatted: there are no challenges, no consistent story points to hit each episode, just an artificial context in which 15 people interact.

There will be exits and entrances and votes, however, which adds a familiar element and will certainly keep things dramatic, though based on week one, the casting alone has produced plenty of drama.

Here’s how voting will work: The Utopians will occasionally vote on whether or not the others should be replaced. Then, two new people will show up to spend three or four days on the compound. The Utopians will pick which person they want to enter, and the new person chooses who they’ll replace among those who received at least two votes. Viewer votes break ties.

Despite the change-over of cast members, the lack of challenges and veto meetings and live shows makes the producers’ jobs very difficult, but that also brings reality TV back to its origins, when producers just filmed seven strangers living together in a house. There’s also similarity here to all of the PBS house shows, such as Colonial House or my favorite, Manor House, though those shows required their cast to live with rules and constraints of their time periods.

All in all, it makes for exciting possibility. I talked with Utopia‘s showrunners earlier this summer, before the cast was finalized and while other kinds of pre-production was ongoing. So, the conversation was largely aspirational and hypothetical, but it was still insightful.

First, executive producer Jon Kroll, who’s previously worked on shows ranging from Big Brother to The Amazing Race to Amish in the City:

  • “We hopefully can press play and help tell great stories out of what happens, but not have to have a lot of manipulation or producer interference. That’s certainly our goal.”
  • “When I got called to do this show, I was excited and terrified. I was excited because I was raised on an intentional community … it’s the show I was born to do. But on the other side, I was terrified it would not be what it promised to be. I kept waiting for someone to come in and say, ‘Oh no, we’re not really doing the show in the way you think you’re doing it.’ And at every turn I’ve been surprised… everyone is on board trying to make this something that truly is different.”
  • “We all went to Holland together about four months into the show there and watched it happening and met with the producers there, and saw that it works. Does it work like a typical short-attention span U.S. network TV show? No, it’s a different kind of show from that. It will develop the loyal soap-type viewership that you get for shows where people get attached to characters. I also think the fragmentation of broadcast TV almost helps this show because you can get a really great, loyal audience to this. Does it need to be 20, 30 million viewers? No. If you get a good, strong audience that stays with the show it can be a success and then grow as more people discover it.”
  • “The online team is going to be monitoring feedback constantly from the online viewers: Do they want more of certain characters? Do they want more of certain types of stories or certain types of discussions, or are they more interested in the animals? They’ll follow the lead from that, because why not give people what they want?”
  • “We looked at a lot of different locations. … We feel that part of the pioneering spirit and starting a new society is working a lot outdoors, so we wanted a place where even into the winter, we had a lot of outdoor weather and people would be outdoors a lot and not sitting inside listening to it rain. … interacting in an indoor/outdoor environment instead of it being another show that takes place in a mansion or a house which we’ve seen so many times.”
  • “It’s so funny you should mention 1800 House1900 House–I don’t want to lose our audience because obviously those shows were for certain kinds of viewers like you and me–but I really do think this show is more like them, with perhaps more social dynamics and broader characters, than it is like reality competition shows we see today. I actually think it’s more like Real World than it is like any of the reality shows that are running on network right now.”
  • “Almost all reality shows have this fly-on-the-wall view of the participants now and I just think competition shows are so different because of how the participants approach them.”

Executive producer Conrad Green, former Dancing with the Stars showrunner:

  • “We have to mine stories out of events; part of the pleasure of watching this will be that it isn’t so end-oriented. It isn’t so written and so over-produced. … Hopefully we’ll get very unguarded, very unfiltered relationships with people, and we have to work out a way through editing to try and make sure we pick the most dramatic moments and tell stories properly.”
  • “It is a very interesting challenge to go in with essentially a blank sheet of paper and no pen. … I would imagine it’s quite likely the Utopians themselves will set  regular meetings and things like that which actually become structural beats within the show.”
  • “We’re not here to solve people’s problems on this show. We’re not here to write the agenda. But I will say, go talk to someone, deal with these things, work out structures.”
  • “The intention of this clearly isn’t to make it into some big shoutfest of oppositional views.”
  • “The hope would doing it on this scale is that people won’t feel imprisoned and it will feel much more like The Truman Show and less like shows where people are boxed in.”
  • “If you get too far away from the Internet, it makes no sense; it’s an incoherent show.” [Tuesday’s episodes will cover events up to Sunday; Fridays episodes will cover events up to Wednesday.]
  • “This is a permeable world. … We’re happy to let people come through–within limits, we don’t want a constant stream of people–and they’ll constantly be interacting with people because of the businesses they’ll create, which will necessarily have people coming from the outside world, going to their site.”
  • “It should be like a soap; that’s ultimately where it should sit. Characters you’ve associated with, their ups and their downs, their ebbs and their flows.”
  • “I think everyone realizes that you can’t keep launching copycat shows and expect them to keep breaking ground. And you have to roll the dice sometimes on these things.”
  • “It is an expensive show to make, undoubtedly. … You can’t half-do a show like this. Youc an’t make it a quarter of an acre with 40 cameras and expect it to feel like something that should last a year. People would literally go insane. … If it goes the whole year or longer, it becomes a very cheap show. Those costs amortize very quickly.”
  • “Reality’s a very mature genre now, and it feels to me–I was on Dancing for a long time, and at some point you always have to go and do something new, but I was waiting ’til I found something that I thought, genuinely, would move the needle a bit if it worked. Of course, that doesn’t come without risk, but if it does work, this could be fascinating, and it’s got the potential to be fascinating.”

We’ll start to see whether or not it lives up to that potential tonight.

The first five minutes of episode one are below, and while they don’t really give a sense of how the show will play out–just like the first episode alone won’t do that–they do introduce the show’s narrator, “Bizarro” cartoonist Dan Piraro, who explains how he was cast, and also include Daughtry’s “Utopia” theme song.

Piraro is unexpected but perfect, but the theme song feels like the show’s biggest misfire so far; it’s grating and way too 1980s sit-com literal. Hopefully, what follows will be more Piraro than Daughtry.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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