As an architect of “Big Brother,” Dutch reality-TV pioneer John de Mol would be a good candidate to sue the producers of “Utopia,” if only he wasn’t one of them. The show’s billing as a “social experiment” quickly dissipates amid the assemblage of chiseled Type-AAA personalities and archetypes tasked with carving out an existence amid the wilds of Santa Clarita, Cal. (a locale Fox has the chutzpah to dub “five acres of paradise”). Scheduled to run twice weekly for a year, the protracted time commitment is just another hurdle for the pioneers – and network – to clear.
Adapted from a Dutch format whose popularity no doubt helped sell Fox on the concept, the goal was clearly to up the ante on “Big Brother” and “Survivor” with the extended timeframe, lack of silly games or challenges, portentous narration (“A chance to start the world again”), and the purity of knowing there’s no cash prize at the end of the rainbow (other than perhaps an US Weekly spread).
OK, so there is a rough template – one of the 15 participants will be ejected, and replaced, each month – but the goal is to make this feel like it’s somehow Important, a commentary on our riven and polarized times.
Nice try, except the casting mavens have loaded up on extremes – folks with whom a lot of people wouldn’t want to share an elevator ride, much less a log cabin, even if it’s freeway-close to Los Angeles.
As a consequence, the crazy train made several stops before the first hour was up, from an emotional outburst by the ex-convict to the survivalist prepper’s blather about waste to discovering that one of the women is secretly pregnant. And that didn’t even count Josh, the 36-year-old contractor who got drunk and became abusive on night one.
In pursuing this unwieldy, sure-to-be-fractious cross-section of Americans, “Utopia” has bent the mold in some respects. The initial roster includes several players in their 40s and even incorporates a few – such as Jonathan, a 44-year-old Pentecostal pastor – whose efforts to proselytize raise the potentially thorny issue of religion.
Fox launched the show with a two-hour episode in advance of its Tuesday and Friday telecasts, and “Utopia” has certainly generated plenty of curiosity, mostly because the reality genre has appeared to be stuck in such a rut.
Yet while raw and weird have certainly yielded dividends in the past, please let’s not kid ourselves: If “Utopia” has any legs at all, it will as a cable-style freakshow, not some grand “experiment” in democracy. Indeed, the diverse lineup seems designed to draw from various unscripted staples – a dash of “Doomsday Preppers” here, a dollop of “Duck Dynasty” there – and throw them together in the same blender.
By that measure, tapping Bizarro comics creator Dan Piraro as host/narrator is about the only unorthodox choice the producers have made.
“There ain’t no fixin’ stupid,” handyman/hillbilly Red said in the early going.
Ah, out of the gibberish-spouting mouths of babes.