‘Utopia’ strives to create new society, falls flat

Dan Piraro is the narrator for 'Utopia,' Fox's newest reality TV series . Adapted from Ewen Roberts via Flickr Creative Commons

“Since the dawn of time, humans have always wondered: does a perfect world exist? Now, we get the chance to build one. Will it be ultimate happiness or utter chaos?” muses the IMDb plot summary for “Utopia” (2014-present). Fox’s new reality series, “Utopia,” aspires to find the answer to that bold question. Fifteen outrageously different Americans are thrown into a remote, underdeveloped location with limited resources while hundreds of hidden cameras track their every move. While the show’s premise seems intriguing and certainly bursting with potential, it doesn’t quite live up to the paradise it promises to be.

Dubbed by Fox’s Executive Vice President of Alternative Entertainment Simon Andreae as the “largest, most ambitious social experiment on television,” the rules of the show are quite simple — the utopians are given a piece of land, a barn, a few cows and chickens, water and electricity connections, one telephone call and $5,000. And then they are expected to live together for a year. Oh yes, and each month, one member is sent home and replaced by someone new.

In the first episode, the contestants arrive in Utopia. They settle into their new home and, in typical reality show fashion, chaos quickly ensues. Thirty-six-year-old contractor Josh mocks Pastor John’s pre-dinner prayer. Behavior specialist Amanda reveals she is secretly pregnant. A fight breaks out over the prospect of rationing food.  The pilot continues to bombard the viewer with one dramatic event after the next — a contestant ends up in the hospital, secrets are revealed, romances bud and tempers flare.

Unlike other popular reality shows, “Utopia” offers no glittering pile of cash, no promise of true love, no material goods to the winners. The show isn’t a game and there aren’t really any winners — the only incentive is the drive and curiosity to build a new society. Most successful reality shows offer both an interesting premise and a core event, such as the physical tasks of “Survivor” (2000-present), dates on “The Bachelor” (2002-present) or performances on “American Idol” (2002-present). These focal points create drama and at least provide the show with some type of plot to keep it progressing.

Without any type of rules or tasks, “Utopia” relies primarily on clashes between characters to entertain viewers.  Casting covered every possible stock character, most notably a polyamorist hippie, a successful New York City lawyer, a Pentecostal minister, an ex-convict and a country hillbilly, and seems to purposefully set the show up for drama. For example, the more conservative utopians become upset when a group of the younger, more free-spirited women like to swim in the lake naked. The viewer watches one drama unfold as the next is created simply from character interactions, while there is no real story line to retain the viewer’s interest.

The show claims to give diverse groups of people a chance to start the world again. While starting society from scratch and seeing what systems develop is an intriguing idea, participants in “Utopia” will never be able to truly achieve their idealized and bold “social experiment.” The issue is that all the people on the show had a life before “Utopia.” They were exposed to religion, government systems and other ideals that now color their actions and attitudes on the show. Thus, the grand questions that the show sets out to answer are tainted by the contestants’ prior exposure to modern society; to truly explore how humans would construct a society from scratch would require a collection of people with no previously formed ideas about government, religion or other such institutions — obviously an impossible feat.

Like the infamous dystopian societies depicted in “Brave New World” (1932), “1984” (1949) and “Fahrenheit 451” (1953), Fox’s reality show began with a noble concept chock-full of potential, but appears to be headed toward failure.