UTOPIA is an addicting drug

Utopia (Amazon Prime) is like a free fall into a parallel universe with No Country for Old Men-style killers running around.

Created by Gillian Flynn, (Gone Girl) the show opens at a Comic Convention with secret bidding on Dystopia, the follow-up to the cult hit comic Utopia, a single-issue comic prized by collectors for allegedly predicting major and minor outbreaks of viral diseases including Zika, H1N1, and many others. In the show, the fans of Utopia are all rabid conspiracy theorists, competing with their knowledge of the comic’s secrets performatively, contributing different pieces to a puzzle that may not be a puzzle at all, but the sheer madness of confirmation bias.

Through the secret bidding process, a private, five person party in a hotel room in which one fanatic at a time is admitted to screen a single page, the viewer gets a taste of Dystopia’s content. Mr. Rabbit, a man in a suit reminiscent of Donnie Darko, performs terrible acts. Jessica Hyde, the child protagonist that is told over and over to “stay alive,” and the comic’s rich and intricately drawn symbolism, pull the viewer deeper into the conspiracy. It’s tough to look away. 

It isn’t until Arby, the show’s on-the-spectrum killer shows up with his sidekick and takes over the bidding party at gunpoint, that the viewer realizes it’s too late. If you’ve watched this far into the show, there’s not turning back. What Arby does in this scene, forcing each of the party-goers to hold still while they are injected with a lethal dose of heroin, is the litmus test for the rest of the show. The sad truth is, once you’ve seen that, it’s already too late. The dopamine of chasing down a conspiracy theory has been injected into your veins. You’re hooked.

What struck me as most impressive about the show was how long the promise of the opening two episodes were upheld. Bordering on horror for much of a limited, eight episode series, the conspiracy theory in Utopia becomes reality. John Cusack reprises many previous roles as a convincingly smart and comfortably evil persona in his role as doctor Kevin Christie, who is responsible for engineering new and terrifying viruses for biowarfare. Fortunately for Cusack, his tired and predictable performance doesn’t take center stage: far from it, in fact. Dan Byrd, Sasha Lane, Rainn Wilson, and Desmin Borges turn in stunning performances as part of the team of heroes chasing down the answers. The trust they build, while learning not to trust the world they used to take for granted, is a powerful concoction. 

Even as the body count rises, it is fun to believe in a conspiracy theory right along with the characters. The collateral damage and death of the innocent is perfectly tolerable, even when it is gruesome, because it’s so validating. The timeliness of the show, in which the world is engulfed in a pandemic and both far sides of the political aisle indulge in no shortage of conspiracy theories, only serves to make the show more unnerving while giving a glimpse into the way that even bright people can fall prey to crackpot ideas.

After watching the show, it’s tempting to believe that all conspiracies are real. Just remember that the evidence you find on Google is probably not.

Categories: TV shows

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