Utopia and the power of the conspiracy thriller

Dr Michael Butter, professor of American literary and cultural history at Germany’s University of Tübingen, claims one of the reasons con...

Dr Michael Butter, professor of American literary and cultural history at Germany’s University of Tübingen, claims one of the reasons conspiracy dramas are now so popular is that modern, expansive TV series suit complex conspiracy theories as, rather than having to whiz through plot, they offer audiences the scope to feel like they’re discovering the drip-drip of information alongside the show’s protagonists. “[Long series] really go together well with the logic of conspiracy theory,” he says. “Where everything is connected, where you always find another clue and make another connection. And this makes conspiracies so wonderful for show runners, because they can always add something. You can also turn around the plot after two or three seasons, [where] suddenly you’re learning that everything that you thought was true was not really true, and you move in a vastly different direction.”

A playful take on the genre

The US remake of Utopia, written by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, changes elements of its British predecessor to make the series more relevant for a global audience – as, for example, the original  used a conspiracy theory to explain the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak that occurred in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s and led to 4.4m cattle being slaughtered and around 178 deaths.

What’s more, while the UK version, penned by playwright Dennis Kelly, depicted an idiosyncratically broken Britain of decaying tower blocks, greasy spoon cafés and bland motorway service stations, the remake inhabits a more familiar glossy US milieu of comic cons and tech firms led by charismatic CEOs, like John Cusack’s Dr Kevin Christie, a Mark Zuckerberg-style leader who has brought a new meat substitute to the global market. It’s a stylish and slick update that riffs on the original’s offbeat colour palette which featured, for example, an England with continually blue skies (a result of post-production colourisation) but fails to successfully recreate its subtle characterisation (Adeel Akhtar’s Wilson Wilson was one of UK TV’s most memorable, non-stereotypical Asians) due to a larger cast.

Their shared stylised ultra-violence, including a horrific eye-gouging torture scene aside, what both versions do well is capture a kaleidoscope of conspiracy theory belief among their main characters with Wilson Wilson, now played by Desmin Borges, being the most militant believer compared to everyman sceptic and fellow comic book nerd, Ian, who is at the opposite end of the scale. This range of beliefs enables Utopia to appeal to everyone from ardent conspiracy theory lovers to conspiracy theory cynics alike.

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Newsrust: Utopia and the power of the conspiracy thriller
Utopia and the power of the conspiracy thriller
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