FOX is putting a lot of faith into their new reality show, Utopia, not least simply because the “contestants” are signed up for living there for a year. It probably isn’t a bad bet, because ratings over the last few years (and decades) have shown nothing more than the fact that people will tune in for any sort of crazy that a network will air. Reality shows are practically can’t lose efforts, because if things go far enough to one side, then people tune in to hate watch, and your network is still making money.
That’s good, because Utopia, which also offers live feed online viewing between episodes, is not so much a social experiment as it is a test of security protocols and the near perfection of the theory that there is nothing so dumb that you won’t find people to sign up for it, as long as they get to be on TV.
The alleged theory of Utopia is actually one that ought to give you something fascinating and interesting, and might result in the kind of show that people would watch for years. Like many of the “House” shows (Frontier House, 1900 House, etc.), or other similar efforts like Kid Nation, taking a more or less random sampling of humanity and putting them in a new world can make for not just compelling entertainment, but can offer up insights that are hard to come by in such a direct way. Frontier House especially is something everyone should watch.
In Utopia, we up that game by taking a group of people and throwing them into a 5-acre parcel of land with a large barn, a pond, some livestock, and no rules. If we take what’s offered up in the description of the show, that we take a random group of people from a variety of backgrounds, and throw them together to see what happens, we ought to have a show for the ages.
The problem we face relates pretty directly to the show that started it all, The Real World. The first season of The Real World still holds up as, much as you might hate to admit it, a great show. We took a bunch of people and threw them into a diverse mix of other people, and made them live together. This made for some rough moments, and people had varying perspectives and beliefs, which caused some clashes, but, by and large, everyone involved was sane. Then came Puck, in I believe the third season, and reality television was changed forever. After that, every season had to have at least one crazy person, and reality television across the board devolved into making sure that any “random” group included a few people who were probably going to kill each other.
Utopia is not a random group from diverse backgrounds, it’s almost exclusively made up of Pucks. Now, not necessarily in the sense that everyone involved is the sort of person who might jump into a battle royale, but in the sense that we’ve purposely taken extremes of character and viewpoint, and found the group least likely to get along. It isn’t, as the show’s title might suggest, that we’re wondering how a group of strangers might get along, but how can we put a very specific group together in order to have the most fights and discord on television.
Different viewpoints is certainly the lifeblood of such a show, and finding people willing to sign up for a year on a show limits the field, but even after one episode it becomes clear that we aren’t going to be watching the show we might have hoped to get.
Right out of the gates we have Dave (already listed on the show’s website in the “Banished” category) channeling Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black and having a fit about which items he packed will go into the communal box. This sets the stage for the show in ways beyond what is immediately apparent from this outburst, because the guy can hardly have a conversation without making it abundantly clear that he might lose it, which means that during the interview process, we knew exactly what we were getting.
We move through a few more of the residents by introducing Jonathan, a pastor, who is even more pastor-y than your average guy leading a church, and Dedeker, a polyamorous woman who lists her profession as belly dancer, and these two are combined with a variety of other women whose main claim to resident status is that they are athiest and/or scored well on the “How likely are you to skinny dip with great frequency?” portion of the questionnaire.
Looking at other facets of the show, having a cook, a general contractor, and a handyman on board seem like good ideas, especially as there are certain roles at play where a random group may look to them for guidance. But, naturally, the cook has a fairly low threshold for going off on people who question his opinions on cookery, because clearly he’s a respected authority on the subject. Well, actually he’s 26 and a “private chef,” which, let’s face it, is a title everyone on Earth has the same claim to. The general contractor has a big head, and isn’t a happy drunk, and the handyman is a self-proclaimed “backwoods hillbilly,” though possibly one of the saner people involved.
Adding to the mix is Bella, a naked yoga enthusiast and doomsday prepper, who wants everything “Green” to an extant that even leaves most Green enthusiasts looking a little sideways. She’s also fantastically vocal on every subject, and is one of those super happy, peace and love types who believes lots of other people are obnoxious, but her definition of obnoxious is really something along the lines of “not sitting quietly while I’m outrageously obnoxious at you.”
The holistic doctor and other supremely “peace, love, and understanding,” members haven’t overly squared off with the “gun guy” yet, nor have they had much cause to really debate with the people who have packed their bows in order to kill Bambi, but we know these things are coming.
All in all, the most positive reaction to the show that seems possible is a sense of dread and sympathy for Mike (an Attorney) and Chris (a chili farmer), who seem like the most normal people, and are the ones that spend most of their time looking like deer caught in headlights, wondering just what the hell they missed in the fine print.
The show is bound to get decent enough ratings for a while, as all white hot messes do, but the ludicrous combination of people might quickly turn people off. It will be interesting to see what happens when a show that has a built-in year gets pulled. That’s probably just wishful thinking on my part. It would be nice to see a true social experiment return to television, but this one is only worth watching to see mostly unstable and/or outrageous people lose it at each other, and that’s already on a dozen other channels all day long.