Dayglo conspiracy thriller Utopia (C4) shocked everyone last year by being one the most unusual, funny, unpredictable and thoroughly exhilarating programmes on telly. It wasn’t exactly to everyone’s tastes, however; it’s sour colouring and brutal violence proving too tart for many. Thankfully, it garnered enough viewers to warrant a second series, starting tonight at 10pm, that belligerently promises to be more of the same.
The show was always going to be a hard sell. With its splashes of acidic yellow and a disconcerting way of framing shots that was evocative of comic book panels, Utopia is one of the most idiosyncratic shows you’re likely to come across. An arcane blend of off-kilter villains, sickening violence and a surprising sense of humour only exacerbated the series’ struggle to find a large audience, with many simply dismissing it as the stuff of teenage boys’ fantasies – the sort you would find in comic books – and therefore not suitable for the more urbane viewer.
But beneath all the stark stylistic choices, Utopia can be as clever, complex and morally challenging as anything you’re likely to find in subtitles on BBC Four. The first series introduces a group of implausible nerds who find themselves in possession of an unpublished graphic novel that will explain the origin of a mysterious vaccine, or so conspiracy theorists believe. They soon find themselves targeted by a wheezy hitman, a devious pharmaceutical company and an enigmatic young woman who embodies the series’ biggest question: Where is Jessica Hyde?
Unafraid of exploring challenging questions, series two continues Utopia’s interest in how genetic science may save or damn the human race. Last series’ arc uncovered The Network’s plot to sterilise 90 percent on the world’s population by unleashing an unnecessary vaccine, ostensibly to prevent further war and genocide. It’s the genius of Dennis Kelly’s writing (the polymath behind the stage musical Matilda and the BBC3 comedy Pulling) that you can kind of see The Network’s point and almost understand that they are performing such a dreadful act of cruelty because they genuinely believe it will save humanity.
Kelly’s writing is so sharp, funny and brutal here that he is able to skip between countless plot threads (blackmail, global politics, drug testing, genetics) without letting the uneasy tension wane. The show is so gripping and edgy because Kelly’s writing is constantly surprising; you’re never certain exactly how a scene will pan out and Kelly loads the dialogue with so much menace (“Do you understand your mission?”) that you are practically conditioned to expect the worst at all times.
Those who were put off by the show’s violence would say it’s an unsettling watch. And it is. The highly criticised scene from series one where pleather-clad assassin Arby strolls into a school and calmly executes six children and two teachers will leave you wide eyed and in need of years of therapy it’s so disturbing. And let’s not even get into Lee’s eclectic torture tools (Sand. Chillies. A spoon. Yikes.). However, the violence is never gratuitous. Every death and scene of torture is depicted as a disturbing, inhuman action with horrible consequences as the camera lingers behind to witness the despairing aftermath. That’s why the violence sticks with you; it’s so callous and cold.
The biggest question surround the second series is how it will respond to the controversy of the first. Will it try to tone down its erratic idiosyncrasies and turn The Network into a bunch of free loving hippies determined to solve the world’s problems by dancing in the rain surrounded by unicorns? Nope. The trailer alone promises fiery explosions, car chases, buckets of blood and a girly assassin dressed as a rag doll. Meanwhile the series opener will take the bold step of setting the entire episode in the 1970s to deepen the mythology around the Utopia Experiments – a move that has already sparked outrage) – just to keep the audience waiting a little longer.
If only one thing can be certain about series two of Utopia – and there really is only one – it’s that this weird, original, wonderful thriller will never change. Here’s hoping series two proves it doesn’t really need to.