Before we really get into this review, something has to be addressed: Amazon Prime‘s Utopia Season 1 features a pandemic spreading across America and killing children. If that makes you say “Yeah, I’m out, I don’t want to see that right now,” understandable. And to be frank, if that’s how you feel, Utopia might not be for you even in less timely circumstances. This show is tremendously violent and thematically dark, and undercuts it all with an ironic sense of humor. But if that sounds even a little bit like something you might be into, you have to check out Utopia.
The conspiracy thriller comes from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, who writes and executive-produces this remake of a British series of the same name from 2013, moving the action from London to Chicago but keeping the structure of the story and a lot of the tone (the black comedy in unexpected moments feels very British). It follows a small band of nerdy friends who bonded online over their obsession with a comic called Utopia, which they believe isn’t fictional, but is filled with prophetic hidden messages about the end of the world, written by an unknown author. When a final issue is discovered and goes up for auction, the friends — organized and dedicated Samantha (Jessica Rothe), timid Ian (Dan Byrd), kind, mysteriously ill Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), and conspiratorial Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) — gather to try to buy it in order to decode its meaning and maybe save the world from the coming plague. But they’re not the only ones after the comic. They must contend with an 11-year-old boy named Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton) who can outfox everyone, a relentless hitman named Arby (Christopher Denham), and Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), the main character of the comic who’s apparently come to life, and is a very difficult person to be around. The comic is very real, and these folks who live their lives almost entirely online find themselves thrust into a real-life conspiracy, with real-world consequences.
Meanwhile, biotech CEO Dr. Kevin Christie’s (John Cusack, in his first series regular role) synthetic meat is apparently making people sick, but a virologist named Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson) has been studying this particular virus in a lab and has a cure and a vaccine, so Christie brings him in to help. However, it’s clear from the moment you meet him that Christie is the fulcrum of the conspiracy. He’s up to something really big, something that could bring about the end of life as we know it. And who are all these kids he’s always asking “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?” That’s kind of a sinister question, isn’t it? Who decides who and what is worthwhile?
The conspiracy plot is twisty and surprising, and is the rare plot like this that stays interesting as it gets deeper. A lot of thrillers like Utopia have trouble sustaining themselves past the initial premise in the first couple of episodes, but Utopia remains compelling. The reason it works so well is that it isn’t overly complicated — you’ll never forget who anyone is — and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Utopia is viciously funny, satirizing everything from message board detectives who look at every piece of entertainment they consume as a puzzle to be solved to celebrity culture to corporate hubris. But it also has a surprising amount of tenderness for its characters, especially Becky, who helps Ian be brave and Jessica be a friend.
Performance-wise, Utopia is a great showcase for Cusack and Wilson. As Kevin Christie, Cusack has a twitchy charisma, always keeping you guessing about how he’ll play any given exchange. And Wilson gives his best performance since The Office as in-over-his head scientist Michael Stearns. He’s an unlikely hero trying to overcome his innate cowardice to save the world. Honorable mention goes to rising actress Hadley Robinson (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) as a teenage girl who plays an important role in the spread of the virus. She makes a character that could be despicable oddly sympathetic, and does incredible work with the line “Have you ever had Pepsi?” Also, huge shoutout to the music supervisor who put noise rock band Daughters’ menacing track “Less Sex” at the end of Episode 3.
The series is a nice complement to Amazon’s The Boys, which has a similar graphic novel influence and a similarly violent and ironic sense of humor. Amazon Prime Video has always had a hazier TV brand than Netflix or Hulu, especially once it got out of the intimate half-hour dramedy genre it helped define with Transparent, but the success of The Boys seems to have given it a north star that’s really working, in terms of quality (mostly — we almost forgot about Hunters). That will maybe hold things over until Amazon becomes the home of the Lord of the Rings show. Until then, if it wants to keep making series like Utopia, we support it.
TV Guide rating: 4/5
Utopia Season 1 will be released on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Sept. 25.