Last week, I wasn’t optimistic about Utopia, Channel 4’s new conspiracy thriller. In fact, I used its impending transmission as an excuse to rant about how rarely TV execs manage to hit the nerd sweet spot. But Utopia turned out to be something… unexpected. I couldn’t even tell you what genre it is. There’s an element of sci-fi in the man-made diseases, a dollop of fantasy in a comic book that purportedly predicts the future, but the whole thing is grounded very firmly in reality. Is it even a geek tv show?! Christ, I’m confused. But it was bloody good.
What Is It Then?
Trailers led us to believe it was about a bunch of geeks who come into possession of the titular comic, only to find that shady geezers are after it too. That was true, as far as it goes. Except the geeks – Nathan Jarrett-Stewart’s Ian (much better here than he ever was in Misfits), Alexandra Roach’s Becky and Four Lion’s Adeel Akhtar’s brilliant Wilson Wilson – don’t actually have the comic. It’s in the hands of a little gobshite whose teacher doesn’t even recognise him. And the mystery goes far beyond them – a shadowy network seems to be taking over the Department of Health.
So far, it seems to have more in common with the great British tradition of conspiracy thrillers: The Shadow Line, State of Play, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But they didn’t have drunken fumbles ending in “my penis isn’t working” and feral kids smearing shit on people. Most conspiracy thrillers are political and grown-up, even boring at times. This is a cool conspiracy thriller, with a young cast, shots staged like comic book panels (thanks to director Marc Munden), and a great script (from Pulling writer Dennis Kelly), all tied up with a hyper-violent bow.
And dear God it’s violent. I’m not sure if the already-infamous eyeball torture scene was graphic or not – I was screwing my eyes shut lest anyone came at me with a spoon – but we didn’t need to see anything for it to be seriously unsettling stuff. Hell, a kid was killed before the credits even rolled. The message is clear: this ain’t your Dad’s brand of conspiracy thriller. They even had comic book geeks who were believable, functioning human beings! Result! It’s safe to say I’ll be tuning in again.
It makes me wonder, though, about violence on TV. A couple of weeks ago I was outraged by the violence in BBC’s new show Ripper Street, and yet I was unbothered by the eyeball-gouging violence of Utopia. Perhaps Ripper Street offended me because all the violence was specifically sexual, and aimed at every single female character who appeared on the screen.
Would I have been up in arms if Becky had been on the receiving end of the chillies/sand/bleach combo? Or is it about what fits the tone of the show? Sydney Bristow barely had any of her own teeth left by the end of Alias, but that never bothered me. The Governor’s implied threat to rape Maggie in The Walking Dead didn’t offend me at all – it made my skin crawl, as it should have done, but it felt tonally right, and not exploitative.
Walking The Line
Violence on TV is a tricky tightrope to walk, and sexual violence is an even narrower one. Utopia’s violence felt like it was necessary to sell the threat that the lead characters are under. The graphic violence in The Walking Dead and True Blood falls into the fantasy realm.
The camera can lovingly gaze at rotting flesh and spilling guts, because zombies and vampires aren’t real. The type of on-screen violence that is harder to stomach is the sort of violence that any psycho on a street corner can inflict. It feels like its trivialising brutal attacks that really happen in the world, every minute of the day. Sometimes, though, the viewing public needs to have those awful images forced on them in order for them to accept that these things happen.
This is England ’86 contains one of the most extended, horrifyingly real rape scenes I’ve ever seen, but it shut up a lot of people who dismissively think rapists can be easily fought off. But if someone is attacked in graphic detail on screen just to further a plot (or, worst of all, to give another character a strong emotional beat), and not with any other intention in mind, then it needs to be re-thought. Utopia wasn’t guilty of that, but a worrying number of shows seem to be.Tags: ripper street, the walking dead, tv violence, utopia