Channel 4 won’t let its new drama slip past you: the stylish and highly polished Utopia has been aggressively advertised on television and the Internet in the days leading up to its Tuesday début, and it seems to have paid off. Social networks were buzzing in the minutes leading up to its start and still persist, symptomatic of Utopia’s greatest strength: how astonishingly well it executes its conspiracy element. The first episode will set the calmest viewer consistently on edge, and the questions it raises barely hang in the air before they beg for reconciliation.
The six-part programme is about a one-off graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, and four fans who are unwittingly drawn into violence and corruption after the manuscript for a second instalment is found. These fans – the personally invested Becky (Alexandra Roach), the sceptical Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), the constantly paranoid Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), and 11-year old Grant (Oliver Woollford) – are now on the run from a pair of ruthless and sinister agents seeking its return. At the same time, we’re treated to an interesting parallel story thread featuring Paul Higgins as a blackmailed government employee.
Based on subversion and intrigue, Utopia is satisfying for the same reasons many other shows are not: it tells us as little as possible about what is going on, preceding the brunt of its largely unpredictable action only with a harrowing introduction to its arguably most memorable characters, the two aforementioned operatives. Masterfully, despite establishing a new mystery around every twenty minutes, this episode still reaches an impressive cliffhanger with an agonising week to go until it is elaborated upon. Of course, one still wonders if they can sustain the mystery factor for six weeks, and how quickly they’ll alleviate frustrations that the details of the eponymous graphic novel have been addressed only briefly.
Its characters are due praise as well: they’re written both excellently and with forethought, and portrayed by a diverse range of extremely talented individuals from all across the United Kingdom. Despite fitting neatly into frustratingly over-used stereotypes, they’re convincing enough that the audience can quickly develop an attachment to them – which is why the scenes in which they’re endangered are so imbued with anxiety and altogether nerve-racking. Utopia takes almost every opportunity to put its protagonists in uncomfortable situations, from awkward sex to one scene of sickening (though largely implied) violence. Grant’s storyline in particular opens the road to tackling usually undermined class themes, but so far his portrayal isn’t a ground-breaking interpretation of lower-class youth.
For a piece of British drama, this is refreshingly original, captivating, and oozing with style and talent. To see such a genuinely interesting piece of television come from the UK (and not from the BBC, either) is elating; this is Channel 4 starting the year with the right foot forward. If the next five episodes live up to this pedigree, Utopia could prove to be one of the most engaging British television experiences from the past couple of years. Its legacy, though, hinges on its conclusion – a torturous five weeks away – and how satisfyingly it plays out.