Utopia: ‘dark’ is the new black

Channel 4’s much-hyped new series fits well with the recent fashion for grim films, TV and music.

David Bowden

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Of all the adjectives used to describe contemporary cultural artefacts, ‘dark’ is surely the most meaningless. UK cinema-goers are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a dark take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Will it be as big a hit as The Dark Knight Rises or Skyfall, both continuing the dark new direction of long-running (and often campy) franchises? If not, I really hope the dark new version of Star Trek will be suitably dark, or perhaps Sam Raimi’s dark take on the yellow brick road in Oz: The Great and Powerful.

But they have so much darkness to compete with in 2013! Will Bob Dylan’s or David Bowie’s dark new albums be as dark as Lady Gaga’s or Katy Perry’s dark new albums? After Elizabeth Price’s victorious exploration of the dark side of Sixties pop and, er, foam-filled furniture it will be interesting to see who wins the Turner Prize this year for exposing yet another dark side of modern living. Is hip young playwright Polly Stenham’s take on the dark side of upper-class family life in new play No Quarter going to be better than her dark take on upper-class family life in Tusk Tusk or That Face? Personally, as TV critic, I’m interested to see whether Charlie Brooker’s dark comedy Black Mirror will be as dark as the dark first series, which was really very dark.

That they’re dark really offers you no insight into whether they’re any good or not. Of course, darkness is meant to imply that it’s serious and sophisticated art rather than trashy upbeat entertainment. Yet darkness itself has never had a fantastic track record in art, especially drama. The first surviving dramatic work in the Western canon, Aeschlyus’ The Oresteia, starts with a soldier seeing a light through the darkness (an approaching ship carrying the returning king Agamemnon). Othello puts out the light, King Lear rages against its dying. Crime fiction and horror only really take off as genres when lighting becomes widespread enough to bring the terrors of the night into focus.

Darkness is, frankly, so uncool that it only gets its sense of thrill from censorship. Since the removal of the Lord Chamberlain’s approval from Britain’s theatres, and the explosion of free expression which led to ‘in-yer-face’ theatre, has any adult been genuinely excited by a ‘dark’ play? Getting thrilled by something simply because it is dark is kid’s stuff: the language of comic books and bedtime stories.

Utopia has been billed by Channel 4 as a dark new drama which is about, rather than adapted from, a graphic novel. It certainly has a graphic-novel sensibility: set in a near-future Britain, it follows a group of comic-book nerds on the trail of a legendary comic book which seems to shed light on a shadowy supra-national organisation known as ‘The Network’, whose members seem to be behind a series of recent natural disasters.

The plot, even if it didn’t come hot on the heels of recent conspiracy dramas such as The Secret State appears yawn-inducingly familiar. Evil pharma! Sinister lobbyists toppling politicians! Surveillance society! Imminent global catastrophe! Dark, dark things! It’s not clear why this comic they’re chasing is really worth all the brutal assassinations and (the already much-discussed) eyeball-bleeding torture when they could just have a nice browse of the Guardian instead.

It’s shot in the same style as the aforementioned Black Mirror, right down to its monochrome visuals and discordant electronica soundtrack. The cast includes Stephen Rea (recent star of dark cop drama, The Shadow Line, and dark dystopian comic-book adaptation, V For Vendetta); James Fox (who played sadistic gangster Chas in Performance); Neil Maskell (from recent lauded Brit gangster flick, Kill List, and just about every other non-lauded Brit gangster flick) and a host of rising British stars from shows such as Misfits and Being Human.

Get it, yeah? This show is DARK. This show would fuck you up if it found you down a dark alley. It would blow your mind and leave it full of darkness. Characters you like may die. It may not have a clear-cut happy ending. Who knows? There may not be any character development, moral lessons learned or evil vanquished from its imaginative world. All bets are off.

That’s the thing about darkness: like cynicism, it poses as something more difficult and useful than it actually is. It’s also probably too easy to be cynical about this. Utopia‘s writer, Dennis Kelly, cut his teeth on the excellent and subtle sitcoms Velvet Soup and Pulling and there is certainly some light human comedy to add some colour to proceedings. It is genuinely frightening, too, with its violence played for shocks rather than thrills. With six parts in total, it’s been given considerable room to breathe, but there’s also the risk that all that waterboarding of grannies could simply make it a laugh-light version of surrealist sitcom Green Wing. Hopefully it might live up to wonderful Nineties BBC drama Neverwhere (penned by Neil Gaiman), set in an alternative underground London, which dazzled you with its imaginative world rather than left the viewer wallowing in gloom.

Whether this is great TV drama remains to be seen, but it is very well-made and eye-catching. Compared to much else on, it looks pretty bold. It’s certainly compelling and it’s even quite brightly lit. But just because it doesn’t glitter, it doesn’t mean that it must be gold but, unusually for a British TV drama, a third of the way through we still don’t yet know what Utopia is really made of.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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