Monday, 18 February 2013

Utopia: Episode 5
Once you've made it past the warnings of graphic violence and scenes of an adult nature, you'll find that Utopia is a pleasingly twisty-turny conspiracy thriller starring a mostly unfamiliar young cast and, early on, keeps the audience guessing about who will make it to the next episode - and who will manage it with all their body parts intact.

Plunging a group of comic book fans into hiding right from the first episode, the series has had the kind of body count you'd expect from a series like the Walking Dead (OK, maybe not that high), but, lest we forget, it's not just about violence. Everyone went to town on the scene of eye watering (ho ho) torture in the first episode but, together with that high body count and willingness to put characters through the wringer, it early on set the standard for providing healthy doses of the unexpected. Even one of the bad guys seemingly set up to be cause grief throughout the serial didn't  make it past the end credits of episode one. The plot has been hard to predict - not another police procedural here - and the conspiracy has leisurely unfolded in surprising ways. 

Aside from that initial group of graphic novel fans - Wilson Wilson, Becky, Ian, et al  - there is a  shadowy organisation driving the story, a band with influence over seemingly every level of the establishment, police to parliament included. Believing the band of graphic novel fans know where the novel - Utopia part II - is, puts them firmly in the firing line. Good luck guys.
We've had conspiracy and cover ups before, usually in films. Here though, there's a real sense of something fresh, buoyed no doubt by the sense it is courting a younger audience that perhaps has been ill served with water cooler TV moments. The heavily stylised serial has been distinctive in look too, not least with those eye grabbing ads and black on yellow logos.

With every unfolding of the plot and characters drawn ever deeper into the conspiracy, suspicion over who is on the right side of the chase for the graphic novel gets ever more unclear. Now we're one episode away from the conclusion it's going to need a mighty wrap up indeed.

It'll be interesting watching the serial back once the final episode has aired to see if it is quite as gripping once you know how it all turns out - much of my enjoyment has been derived from not knowing what will happen next, who will turn out to betray who and which side they'll end up on, which is par for the course with a conspiracy. I suspect time will be kind to Utopia. Maybe it'll even set the benchmark or spark a few similar (but not too similar) serials from the UK.

In terms of the potential for another series I can't quite see it - maybe there's another graphic novel hidden out there revealing another dastardly scheme from the authorities. Much as I've enjoyed it, I can't help but hope they leave it with one series and don't try to drag the concept out. Having said that, I'm not sure why - I'm not a believer in the mantra that inferior sequels denigrate the original. Was Raiders of the Lost Ark any less of a film because Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls was inferior? Of course not. We may wish it had been as good, but its inferiority only means they weren't enjoying the same golden touch they had for the original Indiana Jones adventure. But I digress. Here's to a satisfactory wrapping up of Utopia in the final episode and a salute to dramas unafraid of trying something a bit daring and new, with a bit of panache to boot. Here's to Utopia.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Dancing on the Edge: Episode two
I caught up with Dancing on the Edge a couple of days after broadcast via one of the nation's marvellous catch up services and was amazed to find, after watching the first two episodes, that the nation's TV critics were calling it a clunker.
And it wasn't just one review, it was a whole hoard of them (whatever the collective term of reviews is). In fact, so one sided were they, that I felt an irresistible urge to write why I think they're nuts.
Firstly, Dancing on the Edge is written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff. Those familiar with his work will know the chap's dramas are in a world and style of their own and are a real break from the norm. On this basis, perhaps unsurprisingly, Dancing on the Edge delivers. Top acting? Unusual characters with motives and intentions you're not sure about? Both present and correct.
It takes its own sweet time to deliver the story (or plot?) and while we're more used to far shorter dramas from Poliakoff, this marked the serial out as new for me at least. So yes, there was more time to deliver the story, but when you've got unusual characters with an unusual plot then slow burn all the way. This is the bain of the beast for many of the aforementioned reviews and critics, bemoaning the slow development of the plot.
Arguably, dramas on TV really do have the opportunity to spin out their stories slowly, unlike films where everything has to be wrapped up within 120 minutes or (preferably) less, unless it is a series or franchise.
If the story is slow, but there's good actors and intrigue going spare then I'm all for it. Let's enjoy the view. There are good actors to enjoy.
Most puzzling of all for me is reading critical frustration with the serial in view of the fact it is such a break from the norm. Yes there's crime, but we're not even sure what the nature of it is yet. It's a triumph of mystery over cliche, so far at least. Reviewers are quick to complain about cliche, rightly, but Dancing on the Edge's approach has been anything but cliched, I'd argue. Unless Poliakoff's style counts as cliche.
Of course we're only in episode two, but the resistance against convention, even when ultimately it is all about a crime or two, is entertaining.
So, this has ended up as a bit of a rant against some reviews, rather than a review in itself, but suffice to say, it's worth a watch.