Comic book fans have too much power and influence on pop culture’s ebbs and flows, so watching “Utopia,” a show where a granular-level obsession with comics turns into jaw-dropping dismay, feels practically cathartic. Imagine that your favorite comic book is actually a colorful document of someone’s real, if wholly unbelievable, life, and every adventure and every panel is actually a vibrant snapshot of actual violence. Imagine that you find all of this out the hard way at a comic convention as two assassins go room to room murdering every poor dork who’s laid eyes on the rare, unpublished sequel to a popular comic seen by conspiracy theorists as a predictive text for every contemporary plague that’s struck mankind.
“Utopia” adapts Dennis Kelly’s 2013 British series, which lasted two seasons before its untimely end in 2013. Gillian Flynn, of “Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects, and “Dark Places,” sits in the showrunner’s seat for the new iteration, melding her fascination with the grim, the pulpy, and the gothic to a story about fandom held hostage by the very content it craves. Given the schadenfreude of the logline, Flynn’s involvement reads as surprisingly natural even if the subject matter falls outside her usual purview, which is a pretty way of saying that “Utopia” spares no expense to make her audience squirm in discomfort at eye gougings, arterial spray, mass murder, and other assorted forms of inhuman brutality. People die. It’s the “Game of Thrones” effect. Characters expected to stay on get bumped off and characters better suited for a dirt nap linger.
The series opens as one unfortunate married-couple-to-be (played by Maya Kazan and Calum Worthy) starts digging through the house left to them by her late grandfather. In the mess, they find Utopia, the follow-up to a comic called Dystopia, long thought lost to all time. They decide to sell the book to the highest bidder at a comic book convention. At said fiesta, four remote online friends, Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Wilson (Desmin Borges), and Samantha (Jessica Roethe) meet in person for the first time, colluding to buy Utopia themselves. Also attending are Arby (Christopher Denham) and Rod (Michael B. Woods), who turn out to be lunatic killers working for the shady organization serving as the antagonist to Utopia’s heroes because the comic isn’t a comic at all and the quartet is in deep shit. Their fifth member, Grant (Javon Walton), misses all the fun to start because he shows up late, but his life immediately starts to suck upon his arrival at the convention, too.
Fortunately, Utopia’s good guy, Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), is as real as the bad guys, which means there’s someone around to save the day. Unfortunately, she’s ruthless and amoral, a survivalist who’s spent most of her life on the run from psychos, dispatching them along the way with extreme prejudice (like an ax to the face or a knife to the neck). “Utopia’s” driving themes mostly orbit real-world concerns that, thanks to extremely bad timing, are relevant to the pandemic blanketing the planet and especially suffocating the land of the free, the home of the brave, and the frat party of the willfully stupid. As all of the A-plot unfolds, the B-plot, involving a fast-spreading and utterly cruel flu that keeps killing children, creeps in the background, which means the show is discomfort viewing instead of numbing escapism. The hyper-sensitive should avoid this unless they want to see if they can tolerate yet more images of dead kids as genuine images of the same play on their televisions.
But “Utopia” is equally as much about the folly of meeting one’s heroes. Somewhere out there, a Wolverine diehard is daydreaming about how cool it would be to hang out with their favorite berserker mutant for a day. In reality, hanging out with Wolverine would suck, but probably much less than hanging out with Jessica, who’s so paranoid that she forces Ian, Wilson, Becky, and Samantha to watch her pee standing up while she holds them at gunpoint. She means business. On one hand, she saves Wilson’s ass (really his peepers) from gruesome torture and ices a couple of ginger twins in a parking lot when they threaten Becky and Ian’s lives. On the other hand, she’s a stone-cold killer as much as Arby and Rod, which is frankly scarier, because when the hero has no compunctions with putting a bullet in your head, who the hell do you turn to for protection? This isn’t exactly a “Who watches the Watchmen?” scenario, but it’s close.
With composed style, bloody action, and a healthy dose of black humor (a responsibility Borges shoulders mostly by himself), “Utopia” stabs at what heroism looks like and what cost is paid for slavish devotion to childish things. It’s not that Flynn has contempt alone for comics, or for comics culture; she understands that there’s more to comics than dull and pedantic trivial pursuit for its own sake, and that there’s really nothing that kills the vibe faster than men playing dress-up while working tirelessly to determine who has the most complete comic book knowledge. This misses the point of comics entirely, and the point of storytelling writ large for that matter. Reciting text from memory while barfing up factoids and tidbits about its creation isn’t the same thing as reading comprehension, nor is it really even a marker of intelligence. “Utopia” thinks big to erect its overarching structure, but thinks small to give that structure its support.
And it’s loaded with great work from its cast, particularly Lane, a talented actress with a gift for slipping in and out of genres and easily fitting into each. “Utopia” makes a logical leap for her after appearing in 2019’s “Hellboy” reboot, though she’s given more agency here and thus turns out a more self-possessed performance. She’s fun to watch. And fun is, or should be, one of comic book media’s goals. If only other comic series and movies understood that as well as this one does. [A-]
“Utopia” debuts on Amazon Prime Video on September 25.