Fox's big new reality show Utopia debuted last night with the best timeslot the network could possibly muster for it. Airing for two full hours, with the network's first NFL coverage of the year as lead-in, the show likely got a large number of viewers to sample it. (It certainly didn't hurt that the Broncos vs. Colts game on NBC looked like such a dud until its waning moments.)
But will any of those viewers come back to watch the show? And is anybody going to be into a reality show where the major prize is "constructing a perfect society"? Here are a few things we think about Utopia.
1) The deep, intractable divisions between Americans are alive and well
Much of the two-hour premiere is taken up with lots and lots and lots of yelling, even more so than one would expect on a reality show. In order to goose conflict, Fox has stacked the show's central compound with folks who seem to have never met anybody outside of their own immediate social circles. The series plays this up as often as possible, turning to, say, a southern preacher to talk about how his hope is to baptize everybody in Utopia in the name of Jesus, then cutting a few scenes later to somebody talking about how religion is something they would never have in their Utopia!
There's been much written in the past few years about how America is getting more and more polarized, especially politically. I haven't seen the original Dutch series this is based on, but its underlying framework seems like a sort of earnestly geeky consideration of government structures and practices. That survives mostly intact in the US version, but the Utopians here seem less concerned about the construction of, say, a constitution than they do about making sure their own pet issues and central identities are properly fed and cared for. In that respect, maybe it's the perfect reflection of the American body politic.
2) Those divisions are also surmountable
Utopia raises and diffuses conflicts so rapidly that it sometimes seems to be moving at hyper-speed. It sometimes seems to be structured less like a traditional one-hour reality show and more like two half-hour episodes awkwardly stuck together. The premiere moved through four or five central storylines in the course of two hours, and it never quite gave any of them enough room to breathe, so that they would truly stick. (It came closest with a segment where the Utopians voted on whether to "vanquish" douchebag contractor Josh back to his hometown after he got drunk and got mean.)
But what's also nice about this is how it suggests that the divisions between Americans we always hear about are surmountable on a person-by-person basis. The Utopians might have their closely held beliefs, but they're also able to relate to the other people around them as people. Fox oversells the moments when two Utopians you wouldn't expect to bond do so, with treacly music and the like, but it's still weirdly hopeful to see.
3) Pastor Jonathan is getting a winner's edit — on a show without winners
The "winner's edit" is a common trope in reality TV. It means an episode edited in such a way as to create a storyline around a certain person who will either win the challenge that week, or win the entire show. Once you know how to look for it, the winner's edit can ruin just about any suspense any reality show presents.
But Utopia doesn't have winners, which makes it all the stranger that Tennessee pastor Jonathan is getting one anyway. He seems like a nice enough guy, but the show chooses to build its central storyline around his struggles. He has to leave behind his family. He's confronted by how many of those in Utopia are non-believers. He tries to maintain the peace. Reality shows are always carefully constructed fictions, and it's interesting to think about what Utopia might be trying to say by making Jonathan so clearly its point-of-view character.
4) The show is edited very poorly
Cutting down as much raw footage as this show probably generates is almost certainly a giant pain, but there are whole sequences in the premiere that seem very roughly assembled, then just left in the final product like that. In particular, a late-night argument around a campfire awkwardly jumps from person to person, the sound cutting out at weird times, and the music never quite smoothing over things like it's supposed to. So much of the premiere feels like a first draft of what the episode is eventually going to look like. These moments often feel too chaotic to really register.
5) The host seems like an old-timey zeppelin pilot
The show is hosted by, of all people, Dan Piraro, probably best known for his daily comic strip Bizarro, which has inherited the slot that used to go to The Far Side in many papers. Piraro is also a stand-up comedian, which explains how he landed the hosting job. But it doesn't explain how the show uses him, which is mostly to cut away to him outside the compound, summing up things that have happened, or smoothing over storylines that need smoothing over. At times, he may as well be Waylon Jennings waxing philosophical about "them Duke boys."
With his hat and glasses and mustache, Piraro certainly doesn't look like any other reality show host, and he has a weird folksiness that cuts against that image. Since he looks so much like an old-timey zeppelin pilot or something similar, it's easy to be amused by Piraro's centrality to the show, but he ultimately proves to be one of its better elements.
6) Fox has never met a reality show it couldn't fill with naked people
At one point, one of the show's young, attractive women says that she and her fellow female Utopians just decided to start bathing in the nude. It's hard not to imagine somebody from Fox, which never met a reality show it couldn't make a teensy bit more salacious, being very instrumental in that decision.
7) The show doesn't really have a central storyline, which might doom it
It's easy to forget now, but one of the big reasons Survivor caught on so quickly was because it had that big cash prize waiting at the end of the rainbow. That got viewers to sample the show. Its expert construction and weird cast of characters kept them coming back week after week.
Utopia doesn't have anything similar. The ultimate "prize" — the construction of the perfect society — is philosophically admirable but also not immediately gripping. In practice, much of what the show does ends up feeling more like The Real World or Big Brother: here are a bunch of people from different walks of life, forced to live together. Can they do it? Fox pretty much needs this to be a Survivor-sized hit, but at every level, it seems much more like a niche show. It should get a healthy debut number, but it will be interesting to see if the network can persuade those viewers to come back multiple times per week. (The show is airing on both Tuesdays and Fridays.)
Yet there are moments scattered throughout the premiere that suggest there is a compelling show to be made about a group of people building the perfect society together. The bits where the Utopians wander their new world, hoping to figure out how to get electricity or how to deal with one of their dead chickens, have a low-key charm, and even if the stakes are reduced by medical attention waiting right outside the gates, there's something to be said for being able to pop out for a quick check-up, then get back to playing the game.
"Constructing a society" isn't the most obvious hook for a reality show, so Utopia struggles throughout its premiere to feel like it's heading anywhere. But there are enough moments when it gets the mix of extreme personalities to heady concept just right, and those moments make it worth another look.