My Utopia is one where reality shows reinvent themselves instead of recycling the same tired formulas that have been omnipresent since the advent of the genre in 2000.
FOX’s Utopia is one of the biggest voyeuristic experiments of its kind. The series follows a cast of men and women who are placed in isolation and filmed 24 hours a day for one year. There are no bells or whistles. There is no competition. There is no prize. The cast is only responsible for creating their own society and surviving the elements. While FOX only airs new episodes on Tuesdays and Fridays, the series streams 24/7 online and features 129 hidden and unhidden cameras all over the Utopia compound.
The 15 pioneers moved in on August 29 and the series debuted this week. Every month, three pioneers are nominated for banishment with one being sent back to their everyday lives. Live stream viewers then vote on new contestants to replace them.
When I initially heard about this program, I referred to it as a Kid Nation for adults. A Survivor without tribal council. A Real World without walls.
After watching the first two episodes of the series, I can say with the utmost certainty that my initial assessment was on point and that this is a very good thing.
While the premiere episode faltered slightly as the show attempted to find its footing and establish both its premise and its characters, it was able to define itself by Episode 2 which (in all honesty) was the most compelling single hour of reality television that I have seen in the last decade.
Why do I believe in what many consider to be FOX’s biggest programming gamble in years?
The show is entertaining. Period.
Many Survivor purists argue that the best season of the show was its first iteration in 2000 which saw an unlikely alliance form between a gay corporate trainer (Richard Hatch) and a homophobic former Navy SEAL (Rudy Boesch). The reason for this is because it showed that difficult elements force even the fiercest enemies to work together in order to survive. I got the same vibe from Utopia‘s second episode.
This show had more plot development in one episode than I have ever seen. In some cases, it rivaled the drama that I have seen on entire seasons of other shows.
In just one episode we saw Mike the 33 year-old attorney from New York set up a makeshift government. We saw 30 year-old behavioral specialist Amanda admit her pregnancy. We saw the consummation of a relationship between 20 year-old veterinary aide Bri and 25 year-old chili farmer Chris.
Most importantly, we met Dave and Red.
Dave is a 31 year-old unemployed ex-con from New York who made an immediate impression. As soon as the pioneers were told that they could only bring some of their items to Utopia with them, Dave immediately went into attack mode and insisted that all his items are taken. He made no effort to ingratiate himself with the others and this only continued as he pushed his will around camp.
Red is 42 year-old handyman from Kentucky who has clearly been the star of the show thus far with his unapologetic attitude toward his lifestyle and the manner in which he operates with no viable concern for any of the other pilgrims.
While I initially suspected Dave and Red to clash the pair bonded after Red threatened to leave. Dave kept feeding him shots and the two have been inseparable ever since.
When the group decided to pool the limited money they were given to buy food and supplies as needed, the decision did not sit well with Dave and Red who said that they never agreed to the goods that were being ordered. Dave hilariously kept screaming for Ramen Noodles and even said that the food that he was served in jail was better than the radishes that the other pioneers were ordering.
Biding his time, Dave waited until everyone else had left and then woke his partner-in-crime up to pull off a clandestine heist. Dubbing themselves as the “Utopia State Of Freedom,” the Dave and Red opened the safe and removed their portion of the group’s money. While they initially attempted to hide it, they made no effort to hide what they were doing when confronted by Hex who caught them with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar
The Utopia State Of Freedom subsequently placed their own grocery order and basically burned all of the funds that they had unlawfully obtained in one shot. They purchased burgers, cookies and even splurged on potato chips. When the surprised grocery delivery guy returned to the same compound that he had only just left with the first group’s order… Red and Dave made sure to tell him that they were the Utopia State Of Freedom. The puzzled driver seems confused, but took his money and ran.
The episode ended with Dave and Red celebrating the spoils of their victory and even sharing their food with some of the others in an attempt to recruit them over to their side.
In short, the entire escapade was easily some of the purest reality television that I have ever watched and I was absolutely riveted.
Many have doubted Utopia. Detractors have said that a primetime reality series that does not feature any kind of a prize offers no stakes for both the contestants that are in it and for the viewers that are watching it at home.
I argue the opposite.
The stakes in Utopia are actually much greater than in a typical reality program. After all, these pioneers are marooned for one year. It’s not the 39 days of Survivor or the 90 days on Big Brother. This cast signed off on leaving their lives behind for a year to find some sort of deeper meaning in Utopia. With no prize money, they clearly are all there for something else and I am sure that as the show progresses, we will learn each contestant’s motivation.
I am often asked what I think is the best reality show of all time. Without hesitation or equivocation, I always point to Kid Nation. The 2007 CBS reality series had the same general concept of Utopia but featured children between the ages of 8 and 15 who attempted to forge their own sustainable society in Bonanza City, New Mexico. While the show faced legal issues and had to answer questions about the minimum age requirement for contestants on these types of programs, the show itself was brilliant. Kids had to choose between receiving video games or religious books. They had to elect leaders and make decisions. While they were competing for gold bars that could be exchanged for scholarships down the line, this element was only introduced late in the season. Kid Nation was raw, real, and visceral. I couldn’t get enough and I loved it for the same reasons that I love Utopia.
While many may not admit it as openly as I do, we enjoy watching the struggles of other people. Perhaps watching their strife offers us a momentary relief from our own. At its core, isn’t that what voyeuristic television is? It isn’t about the strategy or the money or the competition. It’s about our society’s fascination with watching other people forge their own.
The last episode of Utopia was a perfect work of television and one that can be studied for hours.
If every episode from here on out is presented in a similar fashion, I predict a long run for Utopia.
As an aside, I do have to say that I am particularly enjoying seeing Dedeker’s journey on the series. The belly dancer practices polyamory (where she is in multiple relationships in the real world) and this is a subject that hasn’t really been explored on television before. While I am a fan of Utopia‘s cast in general, Dedeker really stands out to me because of her carefree lifestyle, openness, and general hotosity. She is undoubtedly the contestant that I would like to interview the most, but I am hoping that doesn’t happen for a long time as I want to see her make it to the end of the show.
Tags: murtz, Murtz Jaffer, Utopia