In the absence of trustworthy institutions and the constant simmering resentment pulsing through politics and culture alike, the concept of some vast conspiracy tying all the disparate threads together must be, in its own twisted way, a comfort. When life feels particularly scattered, and faith in brighter days has dimmed, the idea that there are definitive answers out there just waiting to be discovered — no matter how wild they are — is all too tempting as an escape hatch from reality. But in Gillian Flynn’s “Utopia,” the conspiracy theorists are the ones living in reality. Everyone else just trying to go about their lives is just biding their time before the cataclysmic end.
Thrillers have long gone to the story well of the truth hiding in plain sight, but Amazon Prime’s “Utopia” makes it plainer still. After a disturbing comic called “Dystopia” appeared to anticipate several devastating pandemics, from SARS to Ebola and back again, a sequel called “Utopia” surfaces with the promise of predicting the catastrophic future, sparking an urgent hunt as a dangerous new flu spreads across the country. With time running out, a group of rabid fans (Desmin Borges, Jessica Rothe, Dan Byrd, Ashleigh LaThrop and Javon “Wanna” Walton), a shadowy network called “The Harvest,” a possibly mad scientist (John Cusack) and the heroine of the comic herself (Sasha Lane) all end up racing to find and decode its pages as the body count around them steadily climbs. In “Utopia,” all governments and corporations are suspect; the only person you can trust is yourself, and even then, it’s a leap of faith. (And yes: the irony of this show premiering now, as a dangerous new flu spreads across the country as citizens question their government and corporate conglomerates like Amazon, is inescapable.)
The season consists of eight energetic, propulsive episodes (seven of which I’ve seen), each unfolding like a chapter of an addictive crime novel. Unlike many streaming dramas given as many minutes as they like to tell their plodding story, “Utopia” flies right by. But for a show that’s essentially a series of puzzle boxes, its mysteries are all too easy to solve. For every genuine surprise, there are five more “twists” that were telegraphed from five miles away.
Still, the crowded, overlapping narratives still give the actors some room to play. Cusack, for one, has fun subverting his everyday nice guy vibes for Dr. Christie’s benevolent billionaire act, even if that storyline is the series’ weakest. Christopher Denham takes a purposefully flat character and finds every inch of humanity lurking therein. As the enigmatic Jessica Hyde, Lane tears into her character’s laser-focused mission with ferocious precision. And Byrd and LaThrop, bringing something resembling normalcy to the table, are even downright charming. All do good work, even when saddled with deadpan groaners of lines like, “I don’t like puzzles — I am one.”
In modifying Dennis Kelly’s original UK drama to fit an an American mindset, Flynn, who wrote every episode, expands upon a few key themes: an intrinsic distrust of the government, slashes of shocking violence, and her characters’ deep-seated longing to be heroes — or at the very least, to have a greater purpose. These represent sharp enough instincts that it’s a bit of a shame when “Utopia” spends so much time down the rabbit hole where the conspiracies are accepted as facts. The moments when the show draws a line between this underground and the banalities of everyday life are smart and chilling on their own.
In that respect, it’s also hard not to imagine what “Utopia” might have looked like if Flynn got to work again with “Gone Girl” director David Fincher, as was originally the plan for the series. Together, Flynn’s acidic writing and Fincher’s chilly direction have proved a potent blend that could have made this version of “Utopia” more uniquely unsettling. So while ably directed in the end by Susanna Fogel, J.D. Dillard and Toby Haynes, “Utopia” teeters on the edge of conspiracy thriller and pure comic book energy without ever fully committing to either. The result could be a fascinating mashup of sensibilities, but instead, the series flattens and settles into a more basic middle ground. Accidentally relevant topics or no, “Utopia” ends up feeling like a decently entertaining version of stories that have been told before.
“Utopia” premieres September 25 on Amazon Prime.