It seemed somewhere between collar pulling uncomfortable and kismet levels of coincidence when Amazon Prime Video’s American remake of Utopia landed in the midst of a global pandemic.
The world is managing months of lockdown, struggling with disinformation, and scraping the internet to find the solution to these woes. A show about the world struggling with a global pandemic and lack of trust in disputed from large corporations hits differently in 2020. Gillian Flynn’s take on the UK original has been in development since 2013, long before we sealed up for COVID-19, so it was interesting to hear what her and the cast had to say about how the show lands with our current climate.
“Obviously it’s been recontextualized quite a bit just in the past six months or so. It certainly took it, tonally from what was just on the edge of a dash of science fiction, something that seemed very unlikely, that a pandemic was a plotline to pull us through a larger story and then suddenly became a reality in the real world.” Gillian Flynn, creator, writer and showrunner, told me, when reflecting on her show’s 2020 release. “I think certain moments land harder and differently than one would expect them to. Certain things that were played to be a little bit surreal, now, unfortunately, don’t feel surreal anymore.”
“We had no idea, obviously, that it would end up being as relevant as it is.” Ashleigh LaThrop, who plays Becky, said when reflecting on the times. “In watching it now, it’s really interesting because back then, it was all ‘we’re making a TV show and it’s super fun and crazy’ and watching it now, there is definitely a little bit more weight behind it.”
Though the show was in production long before, postproduction was happening while the world had locked its doors, something Flynn found surreal. “As I was editing after the world shut down and editing remotely and I would have the TV on, like we all did in March and April, just trying to get a handle of what’s happening,” she reflected, “I would be in my editing bay, looking at my screen and look up at the news, which I had on constantly, and it was ‘which is the real life part and which is the part I can edit?’ And it was a little… it was shocking. It was certainly nothing that had ever been foreseen.”
Though Utopia seems jarringly relevant, or like it predicted our future, the cast was apt to point out that the themes of the show were always relevant before the world was dealing with a global pandemic.
Sasha Lane, who plays Jessica Hyde, had remarked while on set that the script was so similar to the news, long before the world changed as it did. “There are a lot of similarities, but also, at the same time, when I said that, the pandemic wasn’t happening. So there were still things happening in the world that happen in Utopia or that people think about naturally and that were in our script and similarities and differences and all of those things so I think it really is the biggest thing of life imitating art, that’s plainly what that is.”
“When I had first signed on, to me, the most interesting piece of it was the idea that we all feel like we’re kind of on the edge of something, the world changing, the environment, politics, unrest and the lack of truth and the idea of conspiracy,” Flynn remembered. “I really did it not as any sort of medical procedure or ‘this is what a pandemic would look like,’ and much more with the intention of ‘this is where we’re at now.’ We’re at a place where there’s no truth, there’s no right side up, wrong side down. We are ripe for misinformation and spin and conspiracy.”
Conspiracy was a common theme throughout the chats, continuing to drive home that the gang found more relevance in the misinformation and conspiracy theories than the pandemic story line. John Cusack, who plays Dr. Kevin Christie in the series, circled back to his distrust in 5G technology and his discomfort with how information and misinformation is disseminated. “All I said was that [5G] was an unproven technology, just like any other, which you should be skeptical of. I think a lot of the conspiracy theories are grounded in a mistrust of power. But then they’re also, I think, fostered these days by social media companies that are really data mining companies masquerading as social media companies that are using algorithms to play on people’s fears and prejudice and spread rampant disinformation.” He expanded on the threat of this, “There’s an assault on facts and I think that’s coming from the tech space and opportunistic people.”
For some of us, a dystopian thriller hits a bit too close to home to work for our Sunday night escapism, but the cast of Utopia thinks there’s reason to dive into their version of our world.
LaThrop said “The entertainment is still there. It’s still, at its core, an adventure story about a group of antihero nerds trying to save the world. Even though it is more relevant just because of the backdrop, the story itself is one that’s easily accessible.”
Dan Byrd who starts as Ian expanded on her thoughts, “It’s all about context. This show exists on a completely different frequency than what we’ve been experiencing for the last six months. To me, it still feels very much like escapist entertainment and adventure of fun sort of conspiratorial thrill ride that happens to have this hyper relevant underpinning now of a pandemic.”
The most warmth in the position that the show is a worthy addition to the streaming platform came from Desmin Borges, who plays Wilson Wilson, who thinks a show like Utopia could be exactly what we need. “I think in the unfortunately terrifying unprecedented times we find ourselves in you need a little bit of delusion to find sensibility. Once you’re there you can hopefully take action in helping community band together to fight this thing together.” He went on to say, “I think we’re going to give the viewers an opportunity to follow these characters through this ride and have a moment to process what’s going on collectively. There’s a huge lack of leadership over here in the States as how to deal with the issue that we’re dealing with and ultimately were not only dealing with a pandemic, we’re dealing with a global mental health crisis and I think oddly, coincidentally and beautifully enough, this show is going to give us an opportunity to work through some of those things that we’re dealing with emotionally, physically and mentally. And what better way through a delusional one-eyed conspiracy theorist with a four pound beard?”
So if reconciling your global crisis panic via a one-eyed conspiracy theorist with a last name the same as his first is choice avenue for you, check out Utopia which drops on Amazon Prime Video September 25, 2020.