The 14 " founding fathers and mothers" of Utopia settle into their vaguely stocked new world to yell at each other, get drunk, and maybe build an ideal society if they have time.

By Jodi Walker
September 08, 2014 at 10:01 AM EDT
FOX
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Did Utopia producers really think they could go into full detail about a structure that turns chickens into personal farm servants, but just not explain that mustachioed host to us? Or really explain anything at all, including why there’s so much available alcohol in this new world, and how exactly these maniacs were selected to create a perfect society?

I guess they did. Utopia is kind of bold in that way—this is their world, we’re just watching it. I can sit around thinking I’d put on my leadership pants straight away if put in the position to “create a society from scratch,” but once the plumbing situation fully set in, I’d probably tip the bourbon bottle a little extra, too. In addition to television’s most mysterious narrator, Fox’s newest social experiment is a touch vague regarding the supplies our new world-builders are working with and pretty heavy-handed with the implication that religious preference boils down to “Bible, yes!” or “Bible, no way!” Oh, also, they’ve trapped a pregnant woman in a gated community with 14 weirdos and are now funneling unmarked wine down their throats. Welcome to Utopia, viewer discretion is advised.

Fox will imply otherwise, but Utopia isn’t exactly the first televised social experiment of its kind in the U.S. (though it is the first to be nearly live); there was The Colony on Discovery that simulated a post-apocalyptic world; and let us never forget Kid Nation, where unsupervised children occasionally drank bleach. Compared to tonight’s cast, those kids made building a utopia look like—dare I say it—child’s play. But ultimately, the success of Utopia doesn’t depend on these 14 people effectively creating a harmonious environment… it depends on how many million people watch them fling dead chicken parts at each other. And tonight, I think many viewers had a similar reaction: We couldn’t look away, even if we wanted to. These people are simply terrible at stuff, mostly of the talking and not threatening each other’s lives variety.

The application process for Utopia seems to have consisted of two questions: “How respectful are you of others’ personal space?” and “On a scale of 1 – 10, how volatile is your sexual aggression after drinking production-provided whiskey?” Fox then selected all the “NOT VERYs” and “upwards of 11s” and herded them inside the Utopia gates.

In tonight’s premiere, Utopia sees its core “14 founding mothers and fathers” arrive, where they assemble in the provided barn structure to find out what they’ve gotten themselves into for presumably the next 365 days. A fake hologram rises out of the table while some poor P.A. has to shine a green flashlight on everyone’s faces as they nod with varying emotion to the new information—that’s a “no” nod to the idea of free love from Pastor Jonathan, a “hell yes” nod to the $5,000 budget for supplies from Handyman Red, and laughs all around to the necessity of toilets. The audience is given a few more details from our local Rocky and Bullwinkle villain/host, who has accessorized his face with a handlebar mustache, an earring, a trilby hat, and has somehow given the illusion of wearing a monocle, but is really just wearing regular glasses.

Utopia will not tell you who he is, but I will—he’s Dan Piraro, the cartoonist behind the Bizarro comics. Dan. What on Earth Utopia are you doing here? Other than introducing us to our 14 new worst enemies…

NEXT: I hope Nikki the Yoga Doctor is prepared to deliver Amanda the Pregnant Woman’s baby…

Bella the Doomsday Prepper: Bella is the type of person who doesn’t necessarily say terrible things all the time, but speaks in a tone of voice that makes you want to—how do I say this—never listen to her, ever, ever. She is a survivalist prepper from Georgia who looks like Teri Polo if Teri Polo was obsessed with gardening and overalls.

Red the Handyman: Oh, Red is actually a cartoon version of John Hawke’s character from Winter’s Bone, which is as terrifying and entertaining as it sounds. He swings wildly from jovial “backwoods hillbilly” (his words, not mine), to hardworking handyman, to foot-stomping selfish jerk face.

Josh the Contractor: You know how every show needs that one character you love to hate? Josh is not your guy. You will hate hating Josh. You will hate listening to him talk; you will hate his drunken slurring; and you will (probably) hate his masturbation miming. Josh was created in a lab by Fox in order to come on this show and rustle himself up a redemption arc.

Amanda the Pregnant Woman: THEY PUT A PREGNANT WOMAN INTO THIS MADNESS. Amanda came to Utopia with “a mission to have her baby born in a better place.” This, she thinks, is that place; this place where there is a woman vomiting on the floor and chickens seem to be willing themselves to die. When she informs her fellow pioneers that she is six months pregnant, they could not be more thrilled that they will now be responsible for nurturing an infant on a single jar of pickles and a dwindling water supply.

Dave the Ex-Convict: Dave is a tough character to swallow. He’s an ex-convict who was homeless before coming to Utopia; his introduction about looking for a fresh start is endearing, his affection for Red is unexpectedly sweet, and his complete mental breakdown at having to economize their personal items into a smaller space immediately upon arrival is the most unwatchable moment amongst a sea of unwatchable moments in this premiere. Dave both screams that he doesn’t need to pack any of his things, and that he will be packing all of his things! I think they’re pumping gas into that barn.

Bri the Veterinary Aide: Bri’s only real shining moment is when she tells Dave to “shut the f— up” during his freak out. Oh, and she hooks up with…

Chris the Musician: Chris’ only real shining moment is when he hooks up with Bri and, as far as I can tell, doesn’t attempt to scream at or physically harm anyone. Way to go, Chris.

Aaron the Chef: The same cannot be said for Aaron, certainly the pioneer who is most into pioneering stuff. Aaron is a chef who immediately takes responsibility for  the role of cooking and rationing their food supplies, and assumes everyone will follow suit in finding their own role. When they do not, he gets very yell-y and life-threatening-y toward Red. But he’s also apologetic-y.

Mike the Attorney: Mike says he’s an attorney, but I have a hard time imagining that sheath of hair in any court room. Follicles aside, Mike is the only person who proves to have any practice in maintaining rational thought during stressful times, but as he says himself, his “strengths are in government not in working,” so he might have trouble garnering respect as a leader. Mike will either quietly put himself in charge or crack under the pressure in the next 48 hours.

Nikki the Yoga Doctor: Nikki is in search of a tantric sex partner. Fox execs are praying to every Utopia god that she finds that partner here.

NEXT: And the rest…

Hex the Unemployed Huntress: Hex describes herself as “180 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal” for what, I’m sure, is not the first time. She’s one of a few pioneers who asserts herself as an Alpha, but probably the only one who does it with even a feigned interest in listening to other people’s opinions. But she also spends most of Day 2 vomiting from possible alcohol poisoning, has to go the hospital (I guess things aren’t that real), and in a vulnerable moment after her return admits she’s got some things to work on that her crossbow can’t take care of.

Rob the Patriot: Let’s play a game called, Who said it? Rob or the stereotype of a country song… “I don’t believe anybody should have the right to tell me how I should run my life.” That’s Rob. “I want to represent America… the REAL America.” Also Rob. “The truck driving, beer drinking Americans, not these liberal douchebags.” Still Rob. I’m going to let my feelings about Rob shine through with silence, so as to not be fired.

Dedeker the Dancer: Dedeker is a name that zigs every time you think it’s going to zag. My eyes almost can’t comprehend it. But I can comprehend that Dedeker is in a polyamorous relationship because the narration helpfully lays out the details as she kisses her loved one(s) goodbye: “Polyamorous Dedeker is saying goodbye to her boyfriend… her other boyfriend… and her girlfriend.”

Jonathan the Pastor: Ah yes, last but not least, Jonathan the complicated pastor. Somehow, some way, Jonathan the Pentecostal pastor on a mission from God just might have become the most relatable person on this show. Mostly because he seems utterly confused and terrified of the situation that he’s gotten himself into, but also due to extra screen time coupled with compassion and a surprising hesitancy to judge his fellow Utopians for their behavior—some of which is fine, some of which is terrible, all of which he doesn’t agree with.

With only a week’s worth of footage and supposedly no control over what story lines present themselves, crafting a show out of this situation is quite the task for Utopia producers, I’m sure. Luckily, the bonkers crew they’ve assembled provided the editors with plenty of source material, but more unfortunately, everything took on an oddly aggressive tilt in the first few days of Utopia:

The Trial of Josh

In celebration of their first night, the pioneers break out what was originally implied to be one bottle of whiskey brought by Red and a few jugs of wine from the barn, but must be a lot more than that judging by how sloshed everyone gets. Josh gets Jersey Shore levels of drunk and sexually harasses, like, everybody. More surprising than his repulsive behavior (both drunk and sober) was the Russian/French accent he adopted, and later, the complete loss of mobility to his tongue. After attempting to kiss Hex, Josh was sent to the barn to sleep it off and await a decision on his punishment.

Without really establishing what kind of government they’re working with, everyone settles in for a trial to democratically decide if Josh should stay or go. Lawyer Mike presides kind of with authority and kind of with a smirk that says, “This seems dumb and fruitless.” And considering over half of the pioneers vote for Josh to stay, as their only real televised Utopian decision, our new ideal society is dangerously close to just being pretty cool with sexual assault (as long as the offender gets a “no drinking” probation). In light of her adamant “he’s gotta go” vote, Bella and Josh’s super weird flirting later—”you’re so funny, you’re so amazing, and I just love your personality”—is particularly gross.

NEXT: You’re trying to tell me you don’t have your own domestic fleet of chickens?

Losing Their Religion

For a show about building a new society, a lot of the details being worked out in Utopia don’t receive much focus. That trench they’re digging? I guess it’s for something. The food they’re eating? I guess it came from somewhere. That orange substance they’re all drinking? Eventually revealed to be Red’s personal Tang supply, but only if you were listening very carefully. The only fundamental that receives much focus is religion, specifically, Pastor Jonathan’s Christianity, and a few other pioneers’ aversion to it. And while Jonathan’s big talk of gospel and conversions seemed destined for a blowup coming in, he seems to have adapted his beliefs to the needs of the community quicker than most. He holds a church service for those who care to join on Sunday and tells Nikki he’s open to hearing her beliefs if she’s open to hearing his. He buddies up with atheist Hex after she’s understanding of his religion’s opposition to men and women swimming together. All seems calm, other than Jonathan’s daily sob-prayers because he’s kind of living in a sun-dappled Utopian hell.

15% Concentrated Power of Chicken

In the end, every entertaining aspect of this premiere came as a direct result of chickens, and nothing was better than watching Mike and a newly reformed Josh try to keep their cool as Bella explains why making a “chicken tractor” needs to be their No. 1 priority—more than electricity, more than water in the barn, more than sleeping arrangements. They need the chicken tractor. Mike speaks for all of us when he says, “…a what?”

You see, a chicken tractor makes it so your chickens do your work for you. Light bulb that needs changing? Chicken tractor. A stain you just can’t get out? Chicken tractor. Having trouble getting clean water, feeding your fellow man, and preparing your environment for a newborn baby? Chicken tractor.

Just kidding, I have no idea what a chicken tractor does, and neither do Josh and Mike because no one can stand listening to Bella for more than a full minute, and she talks about that chicken tractor for half of the episode.

After two days of filming condensed into two hours of TV, Utopia‘s concept still seems interesting in that “social experiment” sort of way, but it’s execution comes through more in that “train wreck” sort of way. Cooping everyone up in a picturesque prison and bringing in new blood each week when another person has to be voted out is actually the exact same plot of Bachelor in Paradise, a show that is endlessly entertaining in the sad tapestry of human nature that it weaves each week. And yeah, maybe I just want to watch people get naked and get mad at each other, and take comfort in the fact that I’m not them… THAT IS “MY UTOPIA” (drink!). Utopia suffers most, not from its typical reality show tropes, but from the loftiness of its own descriptors (“Imagine throwing off the shackles of convention and conformity…”).

It’s The Real World meets Survivor, minus the novelty of The Real World meeting Survivor 14 years ago. It’s Naked and Afraid with less bug bites; it’s Dating Naked with occasional conversations about religion… entertaining, sure, but not exactly shackleless. As the pioneers have yet to establish a structure to their society, the show itself is also lacking in direction—that leads to what can only be described as a stressful viewing experience. For now, Utopia is all emotion and chicken feuds, and not a lot of brain; and as the host reminds us over and over again… we’re only two days in. There’s plenty of time to sink or swim, but it seems like there’s the most time to get naked and drunk.

Fifteen brave souls meet in the middle of nowhere with limited supplies and zero toilets to create a perfect society.
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