For a show that’s based on a 2013 British series, and has been in the works for years at different networks and with different writers attached, “Utopia” couldn’t feel — on the surface — much more timely.
A deadly flu is hopping from one American city to another and the word pandemic is in common use. A vaccine is being rushed into production. Angry mobs protest quarantine restrictions. It’s all a little too familiar. Add in a disinformation conspiracy fed through social-media boiler rooms and an overall end-of-days atmosphere, and you have 2020 in an eight-episode nutshell.
Except that the series, which premiered Friday on Amazon Prime Video, isn’t exactly about any of those things. “Utopia” is the latest example, and a fairly elaborate one, of the guessing game as an end in itself — pandemic, conspiracy and doomsday prepping are all fodder for a narrative puzzle that’s only beginning to come into focus as the season ends. (Seven episodes were available for review.) It’s a pale shadow of the genre’s exemplars — “Mr. Robot,” “The Prisoner,” certain Christopher Nolan movies — but if you like this sort of thing, here it is.
I like this sort of thing quite a bit, but “Utopia,” which was developed and written by Gillian Flynn (after passing through the hands of David Fincher and HBO), never got me on board. With a story that takes comic-book fetishism and the excesses of fan culture and embeds them in a high-body-count action-thriller, it’s a long way in subject matter from Flynn-related projects like “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects,” both adapted from her novels. But it has some important, and off-putting, things in common with them: a nasty chilliness and a lack of empathy for its characters, who are blunt instruments Flynn uses to deliver shocks to the strapped-in audience.
“Utopia” begins with the discovery of a lost comic book, called “Utopia,” thought to contain coded clues to viral outbreaks like Zika and SARS. (The world of the series is falling apart in its newscasts, which talk of crop failures and disease, but is fairly normal on the surface, a necessary combination for this kind of arch, picaresque dystopian fantasy.) The book draws the attention of comics nerds and of a pair of nondescript but lethal operatives who do a lot of damage at a convention where the “Utopia” manuscript is offered for sale.
It may be spoilerish, but it’s also justified, I think, to mention that “Utopia” dispenses an unusually high quantity of casual homicide, along with some torture. The quantity, in itself, won’t be a problem for a lot of viewers, but the nature of it — detached, antiseptic, as if an invisible counter were adding up the bodies — has the effect of disengaging you from the story. If someone has created a scale for the justification of violence in relation to theme and emotional effect, “Utopia” would rate very low.
The story, once it gets going, centers on a small band of fan girls and boys who are forced to go on the run because of their accidental connection to the comic book and are devoted, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to decoding its mysteries. They’re accompanied by a grim young woman (Sasha Lane of “American Honey”) who’s a character in the comic and whose father may have written it; they’re pursued by a doughy killer in a windbreaker (Christopher Denham) with ties to a businessman (John Cusack) whose level of evil is a central part of the puzzle. Slight comic relief is provided by Rainn Wilson as a virologist-patsy whose research is commandeered for use in the big bad conspiracy.
(The details of that scheme, which is vast in its implications and whose outlines are hinted at beginning around the third or fourth episode, will eventually be what “Utopia” is remembered for, of course. Still to be seen is whether it corresponds to the plot in the original British series, a cult favorite that was canceled after 12 episodes despite winning an international Emmy for best drama.)
The show’s directors (Toby Haynes, Susanna Fogel and J.D. Dillard, so far) keep it moving right along; if it isn’t engaging, neither is it boring. And the cast is uniformly good, supplying more feeling, dimension and humor than the scripts indicate; Denham, Ashleigh LaThrop, Dan Byrd and Desmin Borges (the post-traumatically-stressed roommate in “You’re the Worst”) stand out.
Also distinctive, in a smaller role, is the 14-year-old Farrah Mackenzie, who plays an unexpectedly tough cookie named Alice. Her character is one of several, including a tall, menacing comic-book hare, that’s probably meant as an hommage to “Alice in Wonderland,” but that’s an altogether more magical rabbit hole.