Development hell is a real thing. Projects start strong and then the grinding gears of Hollywood shudder to a halt, leaving all involved parties in a limbo from which there is often no escape. This month sees the debut of an Amazon Prime series that stayed in that dark realm for so long many of us gave up hope of ever seeing it. Let’s learn more about Utopia.
Like many shows, Utopia originally aired in Britain, way back in 2013. Created by writer Dennis Kelly, the plot revolves around a graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, which devotees believe predicted future events. It’s not the most original premise, but what elevated it to must-see TV was the way the show leaned in hard to the ramifications of a world full of secret societies and dark conspiracies.
The four fans who get ahold of the Utopia Experiments manuscript find themselves in the crosshairs of the Network, but also with an unlikely ally in Jessica Hyde, a woman who has been neck-deep in this mess for her whole life. The show courted controversy by using real-world events and tragedies as a backdrop for its fiction, and pushed the envelope hard on graphic violence. It was challenging, gripping, and too good for this world.
In addition to the great story, Utopia also boasted a unique and lurid visual style, with palettes built around the traditional comic book printing colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow giving scenes an otherworldly pop. A killer soundtrack made from distorted, warped ambient noise wrapped it up in a brilliant bow. The UK’s Channel Four dropped the series after two short seasons, the official explanation being it was to “make way for new shows.” But that wouldn’t be the last we saw of the Network.
Plans to develop an Americanized version of Utopia started shortly after the original series debuted. HBO took a pitch from author Gillian Flynn and director David Fincher, who had just worked together on the film adaptation of Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Fincher agreed to direct every episode of the first season, with original creator Dennis Kelly on board to executive produce.
HBO was on top of the world in 2014; Game of Thrones was at the peak of its cultural impact, The Leftovers was about to debut, and True Blood had just wrapped. It was the only network that could push the content envelope in the same way the British original did.
But things went off the rails pretty quickly. In September 2014, Fox launched a new $50 million reality TV series about 15 people isolated in a remote compound, where they’d be filmed 24 hours a day and two episodes a week would be shown for a full year. The name of that show? Utopia. One would think that’s something the lawyers would check on before signing any deals, but there we go. That wasn’t even the biggest obstacle facing our show, though.
Unfortunately for HBO, Fincher wanted to film the events of the first season in chronological order, to satisfy his well-known fastidiousness for visual continuity. There’s a reason that TV shows typically don’t do that: it’s extremely expensive. With Game of Thrones budgets ballooning, the network simply couldn’t find the extra scratch for Utopia, and Fincher walked away from the project.
HBO still had the rights, but without Fincher attached to the project, a lot of the commercial cachet was gone, so (as often happens in the industry), they just sat on it and ran out the option.
Between 2014 and today, the landscape of home media completed its pivot into streaming. Sure, networks and cable are still a thing, but more and more people are watching shows on their own schedule through services like Netflix and Hulu. Amazon, that many-armed octopus of the digital commerce space, began producing original content in 2015, and it wasn’t long after that it made a play for the rights to Utopia.
Although Fincher wasn’t along for the ride, with Mindhunters for Netflix and the upcoming movie Mank occupying his time, Gillian Flynn was still committed. She stepped into a new role as a showrunner, taking responsibility for the overall tone and tenor of the series and supervising the writers and directors. After reported clashes with director Jean-Marc Vallée while making Sharp Objects for HBO, she must have felt ready to take on the job.
Amazon was willing to approve an eight-episode series. With Fincher no longer involved, production began in the fall of 2018. Filming wrapped a year later and Amazon announced its premiere date at this year’s socially distanced San Diego Comic-Con: Sept. 25.
actually answered the questions that it asked in ways that were both satisfying and easy to follow. It did its characters justice, kept them interesting, and its big plot beats felt earned, not written in to keep the story rolling. It’s one of the most ambitious and intelligent shows I’ve ever watched.
The real question is that if Amazon is going to be able to capture lightning in a bottle and translate it for American audiences. In an interview with the Boston Herald, Flynn said she’d be putting her own spin on the material, saying “There are certain things I took from the UK and certain things that I didn’t. But for me it was always about how we humans feel about the violence. And how casually or not casually we take it, I guess.” Early buzz is quite positive, with notable praise going to Christopher Denham’s performance as the malevolent Arby.
It’s nice to see that Flynn and others felt strongly enough about Utopia that they kept the torch burning for over half a decade. The original is the kind of show that lodges in your brain and nags you, especially when real-world events seem to eerily mirror its predictions. With a plotline centered around a global pandemic, perhaps there’s no better time for this show to make its way to a new audience. Just be careful what you read.
Eight episodes of Utopia are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.