Save Utopia: Why Channel 4 cancelling Dennis Kelly’s show is a mistake
Ivan Radford | On 10, Oct 2014
How often is it that you can say a TV programme is unique?
Television is going through something of a golden age at the moment, from Breaking Bad through to Amazon’s Transparent. But crime thrillers, high-concept sci-fi, period dramas and more are filling up our screens – series may have something special about them, but many largely fall into a genre or sub-genre that feels familiar. Which is why Channel 4’s Utopia was such a stunning show.
Telling the story of a group of people uncovering a global conspiracy linked to the manuscript of an unpublished graphic novel, writer Dennis Kelly (who penned the non-singing parts of Matilda: The Musical) turned what could have been a gimmicky premise into a scathing tale of corruption, environmentalism and the survival of the modern human race – with a dash of eugenics thrown in. It was unrelentingly bleak and uncompromisingly violent and unbelievably brilliant; a provocative show that felt important as well as entertaining.
And yet its subject matter was not the only original thing about it. The cast (including Kill List’s Neil Maskell, Four Lions’ Adeel Akhtar, Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie and The Iron Lady’s Alexandra Roach) was a mix of known talent and fresh new faces. Its directing team – led by Marc Munden – turned the screen into a veritable comic book, full of sickly yellows and crimson reds; a garish palette that played right into the show’s striking themes. And the music? Don’t get us started on the music. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s experimental score was in turns scary, sad and exciting. Combined, they formed a show that was undoubtedly British – but wholly unique. Even when it got a second season, a point when it could have become repetitive, it began not with a continuation from a cliff-hanger, but with a flashback to form a standalone prequel; a bold move that, quite simply, refused to follow the rules.
Which is why it’s such a tragedy that Utopia has been cancelled by Channel 4.
Talking to Den of Geek about the decision not to renew it, they said: “Utopia is truly channel-defining: strikingly original, powered by Dennis Kelly’s extraordinary voice and brought to life in all its technicolor glory through Marc Munden’s undeniable creative flair and vision, the team at Kudos delivered a series which has achieved fervent cult status over two brilliantly warped and nail-biting series. It also has the honour of ensuring audiences will never look at a spoon in the same way again.”
We couldn’t have put it better: Utopia defined Channel 4. Cancelling it, then, is effectively erasing their own definition. If it’s not on Channel 4, what does that make them? The home of Deal or No Deal and 8 Out of 10 Cats?
“It’s always painful to say goodbye to shows we love,” added a spokesperson for the broadcaster, “but it’s a necessary part of being able to commission new drama, a raft of which are launching on the channel throughout 2015.”
It’s an understandable reason: if Channel 4 did well to commission Utopia in the first place, who wouldn’t want to encourage the potential for more unique talent and surprising series (see Humans) to get the green light? Even with Deal or No Deal and 8 Out of 10 Cats still dragging on, it’s clear that Utopia’s budget was even more expensive than Noel Edmund’s trousers – and it’s important for a channel to cater to different audiences.
But we live in a time when the Internet exists – and so do video on-demand services. And they have a penchant for catering o niche crowds, who can be turned into loyal subscribers. Arrested Development, Community and Ripper Street have all been resurrected online as original shows for Netflix, Yahoo! and Amazon respectively. Is it too much to hope the same for Utopia? Netflix and Channel 4 already have an agreement, which means that Utopia Season 1 just arrived on their UK catalogue – and Season 2 is only a matter of months away.
The news of its abrupt ending comes just as David Fincher has confirmed that he will direct every episode of the upcoming HBO remake – the timing couldn’t be better for a higher profile third season. While it is hard to imagine Kelly’s show in the hands of any other storyteller, Fincher’s involvement and the subject itself is set to make the US remake one of the most talked-about TV events in coming years: for those who have never heard of Utopia, they’re in for a shock. For those who go looking for the original, they’re in for an even bigger one. Unless, of course, *cough* someone *cough* decides to bring it back. That really would be Utopia for the show’s fans.
Never seen Utopia? Read our Season 1 review – or catch up on the first season here:
Utopia is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.