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Why Utopia did not fail despite being cancelled

Why Utopia did not fail despite being cancelled
The entrance to Fox's Utopia. (Photo by Adam Rose/FOX)

After 13 episodes, Utopia has been cancelled by Fox. The ambitious series was to take place over an entire year; instead, it lasted less than two months.

A cast with far too many unpleasant people who behaved badly from the very first minutes doomed the series early on. Instead of a show about building a new society, it quickly became a show about fighting, a show that was unwatchable. A decent number of viewers showed up at first, and then they fled. Friday’s episode had a .5 rating among viewers 18 to 49, a 29 percent drop from the previous Friday, though it was Halloween.

While the editing and focus in those early episodes contributed to making the show unpleasant to watch, I place nearly all the blame on casting. A different, more stable group of people would have undoubtedly been in conflict at some points, but they probably wouldn’t have done wonderful things like smashing what little food the pioneers had or refusing to even listen to someone complete a sentence before screaming a response.

This is a show that needed a cast that was not necessarily on the same page but at least was in the same universe when it came to their goals and vision for creating an intentional community.

We need more failures like Utopia

What scares me even more than the some of the cast members’ explosively violent tempers is the possibility that this show’s failure will keep broadcast networks from trying big, bold, new things. They keep trying big, dumb, repetitive scripted things that fail, and that doesn’t scare them away from those genres, but for some reason there seems to be more risk aversion with reality TV formats. Then again, network TV is a bizarre place; just a few months ago we had a broadcast network actively try to kill its own very-strong show, apparently because of behind-the-scenes corporate-level political stupidity.

Here, we had a network, Fox, that did nearly everything right: it thoroughly promoted the series, built an exceptional online experience (the web site and live feeds app were both top-notch), and supported the construction of an impressive set. They probably overreacted to the potential that the show could be boring and thus cast personality disorders instead of relatable people, but it’s easy to see why that would happen.

Meanwhile, Utopia‘s producers did good work. Despite scrutiny and criticism from often-inconsolable live feed watchers, producers were responsive to fans, both in terms of Jon Kroll’s Twitter presence and the behind-the-scenes response to feedback. They filmed the show in a way that rarely seemed like the cameras were robotic. They chose an unexpected but strong host and narrator in Dan Piraro, who helped shape its tone and voice.

Most importantly, the producers adjusted when things weren’t working. (Read my interview with Jon Kroll for details about what they changed and why.) But it was too late.

Utopia accidentally succeeded

Utopia was an experiment that asked fundamental questions, according to its creator, John de Mol: “Are people able to create an ideal society from scratch? And will it be ultimate happiness or complete chaos?” At this point, the answer to both questions is obvious for the TV show.

But what about the larger question? How reflective of our society was this show?

I was thinking about that as I prepared to vote. Tomorrow, the United States will elect our entire House of Representatives along with many other people on a national and local level. We have a Congress that’s “the most polarized and unproductive it’s ever been,” yet the House of Representatives will mostly be reelected, because that’s what we consistently do. People say they hate Congress and then they reelect the same people again and again.

Are the people who represent us in politics really representative of us or our neighbors, either in words or actions? Or are they like these cast members, people we don’t actually want to spend any time with but who get all the attention?

Utopia didn’t fail as an experiment. It was an illustration of the ineffectiveness of our increasingly polarized world, where we retreat to corners of the Internet to support our worldview and ignore other perspectives that might challenge our thinking, or worse, our egos. It proved that insane selfishness, a refusal to work together, divisiveness, anger without reason, powerlessness, and people with awful personalities all combine to easily and quickly destroy a TV show–and even a society.

But like reality television, our society can also learn from its failures.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    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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