"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Utopia: More Fun than the Real World

Just what we needed, right?  A series about a virus that's spreading quickly from city to city -- and killing children no less?  And the plot hinges on a hyped vaccine that may not be effective at all?   So, yeah, Utopia on Amazon Prime is all of that and more, and at the worst possible time.  But maybe at the best possible time, because I found the first season of this series really enjoyable and binge-watched all eight of its episodes yesterday.

As for the specific story, first, just to get this out of the way: the part I liked least -- by which I mean, it was ok, but did not in itself make Utopia worth watching -- was the graphic novel, i.e. comic book, set-up, which was the foundation of the narrative.  At its best, the "Utopia" comic serves the same purpose as "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" in The Man in the High Castle -- a secret manuscript which provides the heroes clues to what's going on -- and that was not my favorite part of The Man in High Castle, either.  In Utopia, the comic book does provide entre into a fandom story which provides a strong argument in favor of virtual conventions and which was well done in terms of the individual characters, but cliched in its overall concept.  So, in sum, I think Utopia could have done just as well without it.

The main strength of the series were the stunning surprises that pop up at or near the end of just about every episode.  Excellent characters are unexpectedly killed, apparent allies are suddenly revealed as villains, and other villains themselves evolve into something better.  Although the transformations could have been a bit more plausible, with better prior signalling of traits emerging or latent in the characters, they are believable enough, and make Utopia an adrenalin spurting rollercoaster ride, always welcome in a television series, and the essential element in a bingeable series, which Utopia most certainly is.  (I'll note that I was very unhappy with the death of one of the characters, though it certainly moved the shocked needle way off the dial.)

The overall plot has touches of The Boys from Brazil, and also offers a familiar prosecution of the evils of corporate greed.   But applied to the pandemic, it has a searing and even frightening relevance to our world off the screen, and since it (presumably) is not something that is current happening in our world, it is strangely refreshing to see.  As I was watching it, I was thinking that Utopia threaded the needle between disconcerting because it was so close to our reality, and fun to see because it actually isn't that close (I hope), just perfectly.  Amazon Prime deserves plaudits for scheduling and streaming Utopia in this crazy Fall of 2020.

***Note added October 26, 2022:  On a friend's recommendation, I just finished binging the 12 episodes (two seasons) of the British Utopia, which aired 2013-2014.  It was much better than the American version, and I'll be reviewing that British version here soon.  Here's my review.


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