A few weeks ago I wrote about my uncontrollable excitement for the return of the idiosyncratic, bravely intelligent, dayglo conspiracy thriller Utopia. But while all five episodes of season two thus far have delivered on many of the things that made the first series so enjoyable – the acidic colouring, gruesome violence and surprising humour to name but three – to me season two has fallen flat of expectations. For some reason there’s something missing this time around.
Everything started remarkably well, with the season opener taking the form of a bold extended flashback to the 1970s that expanded on the origins of Janus and embedded real world assassinations into the conspiracy (to much press outrage) in a disorientating, exhilarating experience.
Only when we returned to the present day and reunited with the rag-bag act of Ian, Becky and Grant did things start to feel subdued. At first I thought this was the effect of a transitional episode, writer Dennis Kelly having to get the band back together before he could set the plot in motion. However, that has come and gone, the gang discovering that Janus will be unleashed by a series of small crop-duster planes and Jessica Hyde staging a freaky and really quite disgusting prison break; and yet Utopia has still struggled to recapture the sharp, brutal vibe of its first season.
Maybe it is a form of sophomore slump: my opinion of the new episodes compromised by experiencing the woozy highs of season one. More likely, it’s that the story is simply stretched too thin. Last time all the different factions (the conspiracy theorists, Dugdale, Miller and MI5, Jessica) started out operating completely independent of one another only to be drawn closer together as the season developed. This offered enough space for each character to develop their own backstory – Becky’s battle with Deels, Arby’s quest to find his sister, for example. Now that they’re all together, the plot’s focus is far too singular to fill six entire episodes.
An extension of this is that not enough new characters have been added to give the series a fresh burst of energy. Apart from Miller’s bland financier Leah and some brief scenes with Ben, the teenage hacker with accommodating parents, the only real addition to the cast is Philip Carvel/Anton (an admittedly brilliant Ian McDiarmid) and he spends most of his time slobbering Romanian ramblings. By having much of the same cast as before, Kelly can only re-tread old issues like Ian and Becky’s will-they-won’t-they subplot, which is the most ordinary thing about the show.
Utopia is still better than almost every other conspiracy thriller on telly, though, and there’s still a lot to enjoy. A strong theme of family runs right through the season, starting with Arby’s ill-fated attempt to live a normal life and concluding with last week’s bloody reunion of the Carvel family on the moors, which gives the show an emotional grounding that fits its sterilize-the-world plot. And with Miller finally giving permission to put her plan into action, tonight’s season finale is surely a must watch.
It’s just that I expected so much more from this season in the hope it would garner the number of viewers season one deserved. But a combination of too thin a plot and not enough fresh faces has created a lacklustre affair that still fails to get people to tune in.
With that in mind and with a third season still yet to be confirmed, perhaps it would be better for Kelly and Channel 4 to leave Utopia at two above-average seasons rather than continue to run the risk of becoming more ordinary than the idiosyncratic brilliance of season one deserves.