The elevator pitch for Utopia Falls, a new series coming to Hulu (and CBC Gem in Canada), is hard to imagine, especially if you try to avoid mentioning a dozen other dystopic efforts. At least, if you don’t want it to sound silly.
We’re hundreds of years in the future and humanity exists only in the city called New Babyl. Safe from the now inhospitable planet under a kind of force field, New Babyl is an apparent paradise. Our story focuses on the yearly Exemplar competition which sees a select group of sixteen-year-olds taking part in a massive talent show, though it’s mostly dancing. It’s easy to imagine that things aren’t quite as they seem in the idyllic world, and the title is a bit of a giveaway.
Much like both The Hunger Games and Divergent, New Babyl is divided into regions, with the populace of different factions serving different purposes. Our contestants are chosen from among the regions, meaning we get the standard class clash as the teens get to know each other. But, in this particular dystopic world, nothing seems especially dystopic, largely because we are in a stage more similar to The Giver, where people are about as won over as you could hope.
Naturally, our main focus Aliyah (Robyn Alomar) stumbles onto an archive of historical data (voiced by Snoop Dogg) and learns that there’s a lot more to the world of creative expression than the approved list of songs and dances. Of course, there’s also a lot more to history itself than the… well, nothing, that is taught to people in New Babyl.
The secret archive is eventually revealed to more and more of the contestants, and when the group starts to blend Hip Hop and Rap into their performances, it turns out that those in charge of running New Babyl are a lot more interested in control than a squad of naive teens might think.
There’s a reason these efforts highlighting the furthest extremes of governmental control keep popping up, especially when aimed mostly at younger audiences, and it isn’t just falling for a trend. For good or ill, Utopia Falls is more direct in its statements, and while the genre as a whole plays a little fast and loose with the idea that there are metaphors in play, Utopia Falls is more interested in signposts than subtle nods. The overall effort is in fact almost coordinating a defense for its own existence within itself, not least by repeatedly emphasizing the idea that not only does nothing change, but that the society is committed to the idea that nothing change.
It’s a little too cognizant of other efforts at times, especially when contestants are on TV in features that are too similar to the Tribute round-ups, but the connections are largely the sort that exist by virtue of genre. Moreover, they are ultimately used to great, and surprising, effect. A dance competition is a strange theory of the furthest reaches of an authoritarian government (although, not seeing color is a little sketchy too), but it makes a lot of sense in the end, partially for the exact reasons the authority is giving you all along.
At first glance, this is a series that manages a strange balance well enough while catering to its target demographic with dance and Hip Hop instead of bows and treachery. The cast are all oddly confident and charismatic, with standouts Akiel Julien, Devyn Nekoda, and Kate Drummond (though she twirls her mustache overmuch) offering certain layers to the drama and foreboding. It’s tense. It’s fun. It’s binge-able.
But, Utopia Falls has actually only just begun there, because over the course of it’s initial ten episodes, as information is revealed by way of the archive and elsewhere, the show completely changes what is actually happening… twice. In many shows, this might just amount to a cutesy shtick to keep things moving and seem clever. Frankly, even that isn’t all bad, given the target audience and the now obviously repetitive nature of “evil government” stories. But, Utopia Falls manages to use its revelations to reexamine its own statements and dive into new territory from a unique perspective. Then, it almost bizarrely sticks with its characters and wonders how the people we’ve established would react to world-altering information.
That’s next-level audience respect, and it makes you wish you could say that more.