Sunday, November 9, 2014

Utopia, Year Two

Spoilers ahead for the first series of "Utopia," and light spoilers for the first two episodes of the second series ahead.

There's always a great conundrum when you reach the end of a conspiracy mystery show that has shown all its cards and told the audience all its secrets: What do you do next? A big part of what made the first year of Channel Four's "Utopia" such a satisfying watch was that it was never stingy with information and the big mysteries weren't drawn out. Instead, perfectly satisfactory explanations were presented in a well timed fashion, and the series never lost any of its momentum. For year two, there was a cliffhanger or two to resolve, but where would "Utopia" go now that we knew the identity of Mr. Rabbit, the purpose of Janus, and where Jessica Hyde was? Other shows would have given us new mysteries, perhaps revealing that there were villains higher up the chain that we hadn't known about, waiting in the wings. The second series of "Utopia" chooses the opposite tack, morphing into a different kind of show as it reveals more information and grapples with the fallout of the events of the first series.

I knew that we were on the right track in the premiere episode, which is entirely a flashback episode to the 1970s. It spells out the sordid history of The Network, created by Philip Carvel (Tom Burke) and Milner (Rose Leslie), and the origins of Arby and Jessica Hyde. The violence is gut-wrenching, the personal tragedies of the characters are engrossing, and the extremism on display is presented as scarily plausible - "Utopia" at its finest. In a single episode, we see how the Network destroyed Philip Carvel's life, which sets up the central questions of this series: what are the characters willing to sacrifice in the name of what they believe? Though everyone from the first series is back, there are two clear figures who take the leads: Pietre, who is working to shed his old persona of Arby, and Wilson Wilson, who made the decision to side with the Network last series and is now figuring out how much involvement he's willing to have in their plans. The Network is on the move again, and closer than ever to seeing their plans come to fruition.

The second series is far more character-based, giving us people to root for on both sides of the story. As we learn more about the Network and how it operates, its members are humanized. Milner, the architect of so much horror, is made sympathetic to a certain degree without losing an iota of her brutality. The ideas and aims of the Utopia project are depicted as strong enough to create fanatical devotion and loyalty in some of its followers to the point where they are willing to commit atrocities. They believe they are saving the world as strongly as those who are trying to stop them. It's a fascinating thing to see depicted through the comic-book fantasy lens of "Utopia," still rife with color coded environments and whimsical hitmen. The characters are all clearly exaggerations, but their behavior rings true at its core. It's simple enough to compare the actions of the Network with religious extremists, or terrorist groups, or any number of fringe organizations.

The continuing adventures of our original gang of heroes - Ian, Becky, Grant, Jessica and Dugdale, are less compelling this time around without a rabbit to chase down. The writers give them plenty to keep them busy, though, including an addled old man named Anton (Ian McDiarmid) who knows an awful lot about Becky's disease, more fun with sleazeball Christian Donaldson (recast as Michael Maloney), and of course Pietre, still the most fascinating of the show's lineup of psychopaths. There's some rehashing of the same bits of business from the first series, but there's always enough new material in play to keep the pace brisk and the mood tense. Violence is employed as effectively as ever, graphic and upsetting. While some of the characters may become desensitized to violence over time, the "Utopia" creators never allow the same for the audience.

The production values are as strong as ever, particularly the visual composition and cinematography. This remains one of the most distinctive looking television shows I've ever seen. I haven't worked out what all the different colors mean but I never feel like I have to. Performances are mostly strong all around, with a few exceptions. Oliver Woolford hits a few bumps, having clearly aged a great deal more than his character during the interval between the series. Ian McDiarmid and Geraldine James stand out as the MVPs, and it was a brilliant idea to cast Rose Leslie as the younger version of Milner. The score is still wonderfully unsettling, and I've finally figured out what it reminds me of - Susumu Hirasawa's electronica soundtrack for the anime mystery series "Paranoia Agent."

I don't think that this series is ultimately as strong as the first, but it's a good continuation that works on its own terms and fleshes out the "Utopia" universe a great deal. I appreciate the way that it takes the time to explore what felt glossed over too quickly in the previous finale, and how it really has something to say about violence and extremism. This feels like a transitional year more than anything, and sadly we'll never see how certain things will play out, since the series won't be returning for a third year. I was satisfied with this ending, though, and hope to see more from the creators soon.

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