This spoiler-free review is based on the first half of Utopia Season 1.
In its first four of eight episodes, Season 1 of Amazon’s Utopia feels like drinking a tasty smoothie, disturbingly finding its red fruit coloring is instead streams of blood, but addictively sipping it anyway. A spoonful of humor and conspiracy. A cup of visceral violence. A pint of likable characters. Series Creator Gillian Flynn (Widows, Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), a veteran of the thriller genre, blends a lot of elements that surprisingly go down smoothly together, creating your next television quarantine binge.
Flynn’s Utopia is inspired by the violent and off-kilter British series of the same name that ran from 2013-2014. The plot follows characters Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), and Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton) — online friends and fans of “Dystopia,” a cult comic book whose hidden clues may or may not be able to predict real-world virus epidemics. When a sequel comic called “Utopia” is discovered, the group is not only brought together in real life but brought into a dark conspiracy where their fandom could help avert global disaster.
There are many ingredients to the series’ recipe that makes Utopia an enjoyable watch. One very clear and apparent factor is the sense of fun Flynn is having working on it; Flynn, who has been attached to a remake of Utopia for years, wrote all eight episodes of the series. While the show’s story direction pays a lot of respect to its original source material, in four episodes it also shows that it’s not afraid to establish and carve out its own identity.
For example, fans of the original series might be surprised at how much more dark and dry humor is sprinkled throughout the Amazon Original. That may at first seem somewhat concerning, considering this is supposed to be an intense thriller, but worry not, Flynn’s script always finds ways to bake its humor naturally into a scene. It always makes sense given the circumstances the characters find themselves in as well as fits their personalities.
Speaking of personalities, another ingredient that’s clicking well in the first half of the season is Utopia’s characters. Similar to other contemporary streaming shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things, Amazon’s Utopia features a large ensemble of likable leads that very much feel like real people sucked into this crazy scenario. As Samantha, Ian, Becky, Wilson Wilson, and Grant dig themselves deeper and deeper into the conspiracy of “Utopia” they’re chased by a mysterious and fatal shadow organization called “The Harvest.” As the dramatic weight of the conspiracy pushes down on the characters it forces them to make difficult moral decisions, and you can’t help but start to wonder what you would do if you were in their shoes.
Credit must also be given to the series’ cast who all fit snugly in their roles and make their characters believable. In particular, Byrd, LaThrop, Rothe, Walton, and Borges really sell the friendship of Ian, Becky, Samantha, Grant, and Wilson Wilson. The actors all have a natural chemistry that’s apparent from the first episode; in one scene, as the characters sit huddled around a table in the midst of a crowded comic convention hall they playfully banter, and you get the feeling that though these characters are meeting for the first time in real life, they’ve been talking virtually for a long time.
While Utopia’s sense of humor is a part of what makes it such engrossing viewing — it’s this very same element of the show that sometimes makes it feel unbalanced. Though the humor helps lighten the show’s darkness, and always feels organic to the story, sometimes there’s so much that it can feel like it takes away from the story’s urgency and more dramatic stakes.
Though there are still four more episodes in this first season of Utopia, so far I feel Gillian Flynn has managed to whip up an enthralling and sometimes disturbing ride that new fans, fans of the original show, or fans of the showrunner’s work in other media will enjoy. Though its elements of unsettling violence, mystery, humor, and likable characters don’t seem like they’d be a natural fit at first glance, they all end up blending together nicely making Amazon’s Utopia a show you won’t want to wait to suck down (even with all the blood).
All episodes of Season 1 of Utopia will stream this Friday, September 25th on Amazon Prime Video.