Today, I went to a press screening of the first episode of Channel 4 and Kudos' new conspiracy thriller, Utopia. It revolves around the original artwork to an unpublished sequel to the graphic novel The Utopian Experiments that may reveal some hidden Big Pharma secrets. Which is probably why I was invited.
The first episode sees the graphic is uncovered by fans of the original, which leads to them being targeted by two killers.
These killers seem impervious to any concerns of morality. They will kill, kill everything, of any age or gender. They can act without conscience or consequence, their every action being covered up as they go. They are gods and this is their job, carried out with precision, care and pride. Big bold brushstrokes of characters. They are Vincent and Jules, they are Mr Croup and Mr Vandebar, they are death walking the land.
And they are in pursuit of normal people, crap people, sheep, who don't try and fight back, who don't make a scene, who go willingly to their death like rabbits in the headlights. There is no way to negotiate for your life with such people, there's no emotion there for you to negotiate with. These are not heroes, these are not normal people who rise to extraordinary heights given the opportunity, they are just as crap as they've always been.
The exception is Grant, an eleven year old thug who is also little worried by morality, able to commit the cruel acts of the school playground which suddenly seem so similar to the killers, albeit hampered by his youth.
There are deaths, there are murders and there is torture, carried out in graphic in the manner of a plumber, looking at his victims as malfunctioning parts that he needs to correct, with whatever told he has to hand, in a matter of fact fashion. It is certainly one of the most unnerving and discomforting of such scenes I have seen for the TV even if much of it happens off screen. There will be letters, there will be complaints, there will be headlines in the Daily Mail. But it ends in a way you should see coming… but just won't.
The conspiracy fills government, the police, every aspect of society is corrupted to an unbeliveable fashion. Except, if you had the money and the influence, why wouldn't you? And they corrupt the good, or at least the lazy, who never see the consequences of their actions.
Such as a civil servant, played by The Thick Of It's Paul Higgins, back in government, but he is a wreck of a man being used as a cog. Or a police officer played by Spaced's Michael Smiley who does his duty and comes a cropper because of it. Neil Maskell is one of the killers, there to get rid what may get in the way of the cogs turning, protected by further cogs.
And the conspirators, Ian, an IT guy played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Curtis from Misfits, stuck in a dead end job looking for distraction. Be careful of what you wish for. There's Wilson Wilson played by Adeel Akhtar of Four Lions, a conspiracy theorist with his own nuclear bunker who falls so far but has the first episode's true moment of glory. Alexandra Roach from Hunderby as Becky, whose obsession with the graphic novel has far more personal relevance.
Oh and it is also very funny. Because everyone is pretty crap at what they do, and their incompetence in the face of death is often hilarious. It's a very dark comedy, the kind that British TV excel at, at sits well alongside Black Mirror, Dead Set, Misfits and Being Human. Ian is a genuinely amusing person, Wilson Wilson you just laugh at. And with the depths of despair heading your way, you need it. We also get the kind of sex scene that you rarely get on screen, one that might actually happen.
And at the end of the first episode there is a knock on the door. Someone you do not know is standing there. But you will know exactly what they are about to say. I can envision the entire audience at home speaking along with them. I did, and found actor Paul Higgins was sitting next to me. "Have you seen the script" he asked, but no, this episode dovetails into one inevitable moment. Get ready to join in.
As for the graphic novel itself, apparently it was created in-house at Kudos but resembles the work of Ben Templesmith, David Mack – sadly it only exists as pages from a prop, the book itself does not exist. The show itself does seem to reflect a graphic noveltiness, as it were. Bright bold colours, such as the Tideland-style cornfield and blue sky that starts the show, with plenty of shots from outside door frames, through windows, the sides of buildings creating panelled grids on the screen. And in the comic shop featured in the show, X-Force, Demo, Neil Gibson's Twisted Dark,,, and Future Zone?
But in the end the comic is treated as something normal, something unlikely to be so important and something that can just hide in plain sight. And yet the world turns on it.
I did have a chat with some of the cast and crew afterwards. Talking about the various drama and 'feels' that the audience will be repeatedly hit by during the first episode, the one thing they were unanimous in, is that it gets even worse in episode two. In a good way, obviously.
Utopia consists of six hour-long episodes and will air next year on Channel 4.
Declaration of interests, two mince pieces and two glasses of mulled wine afterwards.