It's like a mix of Donnie Darko and William Gibson's novel Pattern Recognition. No, it's like a mix of a Dennis Potter series and a Ben Templesmith comic. Maybe it's like Fringe, only a lot more sick and violent. Actually, the new British TV series Utopia, which started last week, is all of these things. It's a conspiracy tale that slides like a wet tentacle between the world of comic books, mad science, and the Russian pharmaceutical mafia. And it's set in a near future where the world's food supply is starting to run out.
Here's why you should tune in — if you dare.
Mild spoilers for the first episode ahead.
The show has a kind of jangly, surreal style, as you can see in the clip above, where our main characters meet on a message board devoted to a mysterious comic book called Utopia. The comic, which appears to be illustrated by Ben Templesmith, is about a scientist who makes a deal with the devil. The devil appears in various forms throughout the book, but always as a half-human, half-animal (this will become important later). The comic itself is rumored to have been created by a geneticist who went insane and saw into other worlds. It's also possible that the comic contains the key to understanding a bizarre new degenerative disease that has started killing people all over the world.
The plot begins right after a rich guy has bought a copy of the rare sequel to Utopia, and decides to share it with four random people on the Utopia message boards. Unfortunately, he and a bunch of other people connected with the comic are killed by two stylish and ultra-violent investigators. These investigators want to find both the comic and a woman, and they are willing to kill and torture to find them. Is the comic actually a gateway to another world? What is its creator's relationship to the disease? Who are these seriously scary investigators, who will remind you of the seriously scary investigators from China Miéville's novel Kraken?
At the same time, another subplot is unfolding. A health department official is being blackmailed by the Russian mob — if he doesn't go on a "mission" for them, they'll tell his wife about his affair with "a Russian whore." It turns out this "mission" is to trick the British health department into buying an enormous and unnecessary amount of vaccines for the Russian flu. What the hell? Why would the Russian mafia do that? We know it's got to be connected with the Utopia comic, but how?
All of this is set against a backdrop of a near-future where food prices are skyrocketing and it seems as if a health crisis may be on the horizon too.
I think the one drawback to this show is that it gets a bit too stylized for its own good sometimes, with the quirky music and weird, wide-angle lens shots. I'd rather have a bit more pulpy plotting and a bit less of bodies falling in slow motion through color-saturated backgrounds while horns toot randomly. There is also a lot of torture, which is arguably necessary to the plot but may put some people off. Still, the show has a good sense of humor about itself, the story is mesmerizing, and the characters are great (as is the acting). I am desperate to know what happens next, and you will be too.
Utopia airs on Channel 4 in the UK.