Fox’s ‘Utopia’ Turns an Intriguing Social Experiment Into a Mundane Reality Show

Fox’s Utopia is not a reality show — it’s a “social experiment.” What this really means is that it’s trying to pretend it’s smarter than the average reality program. There have been others with the same stated goal: Wife Swap aims to teach people about different kinds of family values, Shattered had contestants go without sleep for a week, and Kid Nation put 40 kids in a deserted town to build their own society without adult supervision. Utopia is Kid Nation‘s spiritual equivalent. Fifteen adults live together on a plot of undeveloped land and create their idea of a utopian society. If Utopia were, indeed, a social experiment, it would be a fascinating television show — Fox is so confident in this that it will air episodes twice a week — but instead it offers nothing more than typical reality show boredom.

This is the most disappointing thing about the show, because there is definite promise in it. Utopia has an inherently compelling premise that could very well produce some weird results, because each person has a different idea of what a utopian society would be like. What’s strangest about the show is that there isn’t a prize at the end. The people aren’t competing to win money — or anything; they’re here to build a utopian society, and that will be their only payment. They’re on the show because they honestly, actually want to participate in this experiment (though some, I’m sure, just want the brief fame).

The other draws of Utopia are the way it’s filmed and the audience-engagement aspect of it. It’s rumored that there are over 100 hidden cameras filming the contestants around the clock, and you can watch everything go down via a 24/7 live stream. The aim is to have a show so addictive that once an episode is over, you’ll be dying to visit the stream to watch more. Two streams are available with a free passport (connecting a social media account), and the other two can be purchased for $4.99/month. (There is even picture-in-picture!)

The stream is most interesting in its mundanity. Sometimes people wander out of frame and the camera accidentally lingers on nothing. It’s not addictive in the way Fox believes it is, but it makes for oddly good background noise; rather than listening to Spotify this morning, I’ve been idly listening to the contestants chatter for an hour. It’s a nice contrast: they are struggling with the weight of creating a utopian society, yet also, as I’ve heard this morning, want to shoot the shit about their favorite football teams. But needless to say, if some of the best parts of a television show are the untelevised everyday conversations (“How did you sleep last night?”) that accompany it, that show might not be worth watching.

Utopia‘s misstep is that it doesn’t make any attempts to actually be the social experiment that it’s promising. The pilot explained the basic premise and the problems the cast will face — they have to decide the role of money, religion, outside trading, etc. — as well as the loose structure: once a month, one person (or “pioneer,” as they are called) leaves the show and a new pioneer arrives. That’s all well and good, but Utopia devolves just as quickly into the usual squabbling, nudity, and threats as any other show. The pioneers haven’t even gotten to Utopia before they start yelling at each other about what items to bring with them. On the first night, the resident asshole gets drunk and aggressive. They disrespect each other, fight over chickens and religion, and threaten to leave. They are not here to make friends, even though the point of the show is for them to work together.

A lot of this is due to casting. On the one hand, there are some great personalities, such as a strict pastor who is the main focus of the pilot, so devoted to his religion that he can’t be in the water at the same time as the women (and the fact that the women are often topless or skinny dipping doesn’t help him). There is an ex-convict who doesn’t have a family and wants to find one in Utopia. There is a pregnant woman (who doesn’t reveal this at first) who, I guess, thinks it’s a good idea to have a child here? But then there are the drunk men, the trashy redneck, the “free spirits” who all clash. It’s the basic formula for The Real World house, but this show is supposed to be different.

That’s the problem with reality shows masquerading as social experiments: the producers never actually commit to the experiment, but instead fall back on reality tropes to ensure ratings. It’s becoming such a tired formula that reality shows are all virtually identical even when the entire point is to be atypical. Utopia was promising before it began, but the execution undid all that promise within the first episode.