It’s been a long while since I’ve come across a drama that can be described as totally original but that all changed on Tuesday when Channel 4 aired Utopia. Instead of focusing on policemen, lawyers or doctors this was a totally unique experience featuring the manuscript of a legendary graphic novel, a Russian flu vaccine and a woman named Jessica Hyde. The opening scene perfectly set the tone for Utopia as hired guns Arby (Neil Maskell) and Lee (Paul Ready) enter a comic book shop looking for a manuscript of the second instalment of ‘The Utopia Manuscripts’ and when they get the information they need they gas everyone inside. We learn more about the history of the graphic novel series from Becky (Alexandra Roach) who explains that it was about a scientist who makes the deal with the devil who then in turn returns to Earth as an animal/human hybrid. The author of the novel died in an insane asylum but he allegedly wrote a sequel to the original which remained lost until the comic book store sold it on to the mysterious Bejan who then gives Becky and three other Utopia forum members the chance to see it. These other forum members include Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) an office drone who is too good for the job he is currently working in however we get the impression he’s never really tried to do anything with his life. Then there’s Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) a survivalist expert who has erased every trace of himself from the internet and has a nuclear fall-out shelter in his back garden. Becky herself is also currently drifting as she dropped out of medical school following the death of her father and is now trying to research further into ‘The Utopia Experiments’. The final member of the group is Grant (Oliver Woollford) a young delinquent who is barely recognised by his teachers and survives on a diet of salad cream sandwiches. Running alongside the central story is that of a political advisor who is being bribed by Russian mobsters and other shady figures to try and get the government to spend millions on a Russian flu vaccine. There are small clues to what connects these two stories however I’m guessing they’ll intersect as the weeks go on.
I was interested to learn that Utopia had been written by Dennis Kelly who’s best known for working on the brilliant BBC3 sitcom Pulling as there is very little in common between the two apart from the drunken liaison between Ian and Becky when they meet for the first time. What Kelly does is create more questions than answers as I was befuddled to what connected the manuscript and the Russian flu drug and also wondered who the mysterious Jessica Hyde was and more importantly why Arby and Lee needed to know where she was. It was also interesting for Kelly to focus on the world of Internet forums were nobody knows who they’re talking to and indeed are disparate gang are still unaware that Grant is in fact a schoolboy. Utopia is a well-scripted thriller which is funny in parts but also incredibly violent right from the offset and most notably in a scene in which Lee tortures Wilson with chillis, sand and a spoon. Though the violence, humour and intrigue are all key elements to the success of Utopia what really got me was how much I cared for the characters. Likeable Becky has obviously been traumatised by the death of her father, Ian is a go-nowhere dropout, conspiracy theorist Wilson obviously has severe personal issues and Grant is a neglected child who often causes mischief. While the cast of Utopia includes some big names, including James Fox and Stephen Rea, it is less recognisable actors that take the lead with Maskell, Stewart-Jarret and Akhtar all being known for their roles in cult shows and films. In particular I was really impressed with Stewart-Jarrett, who I always considered the weak link of the Misfits cast, because as Ian he totally captures the essence of a young man who is stuck in a job he knows is beneath him while he also shares great chemistry with potential love interest Roach. Overall Utopia is one of the most exciting British TV experiences in years as it has a completely different storyline while in addition combines action with genuine characters and for the first time in a long while I’m genuinely interested to see where this TV series takes us next week.
While Channel 4 were busy creating intense, original drama over on E4 we journeyed back in time to look at the story of a teenage girl who had a lot on her shoulders. The programme was My Mad Fat Diary which took the original diaries of Rae Earl, an overweight Morrissey fan living in Lincoln in the 1980s, and transported them to 1996 a year that I remember vividly. Sixteen year old Rae (here played by Sharon Rooney) has just left a mental institution after four months as she suffered some sort of breakdown that we learn more about throughout the course of the show. Rae’s life is just as mad outside though as her mother (Claire Rushbrook) is currently hiding her Algerian lover from the authorities while Rae’s pretty friend Chloe is now socialising with the sixth formers down at the local pub. Rae is socially awkward due to her size so is unsure what to do around Chloe’s new friends however she instantly falls in love with Archie (Dan Cohen) an indie boy with the same love of music she has. As she bonds with Archie, and is invited to a pool party at Chloe’s house, she starts to integrate herself into the gang a little bit more however she still hasn’t told them about her time in the institution a secret that is sure to come out in future episodes.
Despite me not being in the key demographic I really enjoyed My Mad Fat Diary due to its focus on being an awkward teenager something most of us experience in our adolescence. Rae’s uncertainty what to do during her first meeting with the gang and her later embarrassment in trying on a swimsuit rung very true while I really cared about whether or not she’d find her place outside of the institution. The dialogue is realistic and is not afraid to be crude in order to demonstrate how a sixteen year old girl’s mind works for example in one scene Rae says that Archie would, ‘make a priest kick through a stain glass window’. Sharon Rooney was absolutely sensational as Rae nailing both the comic dialogue and the darker scenes where she returned to how she felt when she was first bought into the institution. Ultimately though it is the setting of 1996 that makes My Mad Fat Diary really come alive, as it is a time where I too became a teenager, and seeing Archie perform an acoustic version of ‘Return of the Mack’ really bought back memories as did the references to Now 33. The only negative element of the show was that it made me feel very old that a programme could now consider my childhood to be worthy of a nostalgic drama. The script, performances and style of My Mad Fat Diary make it a really sweet and funny watch and one that I’ll definitely be keeping with over the coming weeks.
Finally this week we have the latest sitcom to air on BBC3 which thankfully comes closer in quality to Bad Education than it does to the awful Some Girls. The six-part series entitled Way to Go. The basic plot involves vet receptionist and former medical student Scott (Blake Harrison) agree to kill off his terminally ill neighbour in return for some valuable football boots that once belonged to George Best. Part of Scott’s reasoning for doing this is so he can help out his half-brother Joey (Ben Heathcoate) who has a gambling problem and is struggling to pay off the debts he owes to loan sharks who are currently breaking his figures one by one. Together the brothers approach their friend Cozzo (Mark Wootton) who initially declines their suggestion that he build them a suicide machine and in turn they’d split the profits with him. Later though Cozzo discovers his girlfriend his pregnant so agrees to go through with inventing the ‘McFlurry of Death’ in order to provide for his unborn child. Cozzo successfully builds his contraption with help from Scott who nabs some drugs from work which are normally used to put dogs to sleep but in this case eventually help kill off his neighbour. Way to Go is an odd beast as it tries to laugh off the theme of attempted suicide as the three decide to set up a business using their machine to help to kill people who want to die. I definitely felt that this first episode showed promise though personally I didn’t find it that funny although I did like the concept. Way to Go’s biggest attribute though was definitely Blake Harrison, who played the straight man against Heathcoate and Wootton, and whose drifter Scott was a million miles away from dopey Neil from The Inbetweeners. I think it’s too early to judge whether Way to Go will be BBC3′s next hit sitcom as it could either grow stronger in the coming weeks or become awfully formulaic however I’m going to catch at least the next couple of instalments to see which way Way to Go does go.
Next Week: Call the Midwife, Bob Servant and The National TV Awards
Originally Published on TheCustardTV.com