Whatever utopia is, we can all agree it is not a reality TV show. But this has not stopped Fox from launching Utopia, an ambitious reality series similar in its fundamentals to Big Brother, but framed nonetheless as a grand, well-meaning social experiment. Fifteen strangers—accompanied by the reality TV-requisite strong personalities and/or ability to be summed up in a chyron—descend upon a bucolically situated outdoor compound where they will be isolated for a year, working the land and building—fingers crossed!—the perfect society.
Through the first two episodes—the show will air twice weekly on Fox, so long as it’s not canceled; utopia can only exist if the ratings permit it—a society in which men are not having violent temper tantrums every 20 minutes, let alone a perfect one, seems completely out of the question. And yet, even as Utopia promises to never, ever live up to its name, its funhouse-mirror reflections of the fault lines—religion, class, politics—in our own larger, obviously imperfect society make for fascinating TV, if only occasionally. Harmonious social interactions never made for good television anyway.
In the first episode, the host, Dan Piraro—who has a mustache, round glasses, fedora, and vest, ostensibly to lend a quirky, throwback-bartender tone to the proceedings—insists that the series is not a competition or a game. No one, he explains, will be “voted off.” Instead, every month, one contestant will leave and a new one will arrive—which is, in practice, a lot like voting people off.
Utopia, like many reality shows, strives to frame its mission in a positive light, distancing itself in a decidedly phony fashion from the on-camera misbehavior its producers so desperately require. Through the first two episodes, five of the eight men assembled have violent physical outbursts. The female cast members avoid the trap of being portrayed as catty and vicious; as a result, they are granted no personalities at all, just a penchant for swimming naked. When the contestants, who have been selected for maximum conflict—there’s a pastor, a survivalist, a libertarian, a “hard-core atheist,” a polyamorous woman (every reality TV producer’s dream, obviously), a mother-to-be, and an ex-con, among others—wrap up the first night with one case of alcohol poisoning, another of threatening sexual behavior, and two fights, Piraro sadly opines that so far the group is failing miserably at utopia, as if the producers had been hoping for a dull, conflict-free Eden.
Still, amid the made-to-order reality-TV tropes and high jinks, there are flashes of meaning—such as when Utopia makes like Honey Boo Boo and exposes how food has become a contested front for class conflict. In the second episode, the group successfully gets electricity running to the main house (they celebrate by turning on blow dryers), giving them access to a phone and, thus, groceries. The group has been living on 1,000-calorie-per-day diets, consisting of flour, fish from the lake, eggs from their chickens, and milk from their cows. Their gardens aren’t up and running yet. They have $5,000, which they can add to with their own trade, but which otherwise needs to last the year. The money should be used to supplement their diets, until they can supplement it themselves.
The group begins to discuss what kind of supplies they need. Red, a self-described redneck handyman with no teeth, and Dave, a volatile and previously incarcerated black man from New York, have formed an unexpected but fast friendship, and the two are basically in agreement about supplies. Red wants to live on “Vienna sausages, water, and Tang.” Dave, talking to a flabbergasted holistic doctor and yogi, says he only wants rice and beans and doesn’t care about nutrients: “I don’t want to live forever and I don’t want to be super-healthy.” Red and Dave decide they want to take their share of the money out of the group pot, buy their own food, and also start their own separate state—the Utopia State of Freedom—a libertarian-anarchist offshoot in which no one tells them what to do or makes them eat radishes.
As we listen to Aaron, a personal chef and former G.I. who has taken charge of the cooking, price groceries on the phone—quinoa, radishes, carrots—Dave starts insisting on a different item: “I know what I need to survive,” he tells Aaron. “Ramen.” Aaron shrugs him off—though later, when the supplies show up, there’s ramen—and Red and Dave become more and more incensed, eventually smashing canned food with their feet. (To be fair, Red originally loses it when Bella, a survivalist in charge of the garden, insists they need to buy a water filter to purify the tap water of fluoride.) When the groceries arrive, with a $6 bag of white rice and a $20 bag of brown, Red and Dave, overwhelmed by what they see as the others’ stupidity, take their money from the safe, order Oreos, hamburgers, and bologna— even though there is no fridge yet—and throw a barbecue for anyone who wants to join, lamenting “rich people” and rich-people food, though there is no clear indication that all of the cast members concerned about vitamins are in fact rich people. (Aaron, orderer of quinoa, says he was briefly homeless before he joined the military.)
The show gives this a kind of Grasshopper and the Ant edit: Dave and Red are splurging on unhealthy resources, while the rest of the group suffer through dandelion greens, saving up for winter. And yet, the moralizing of the show aside, it’s fascinating the extent to which quinoa, vegetables, and nutrients seem like a canard to Red and Dave—an example of the foolish decadence of their peers and their own wily street smarts. They insist that they know how to be poor, to go without, and that their dietary preferences reflect that hard-won knowledge. Certainly, it’s an accurate reflection of the relative price of calorie-rich food in most American supermarkets. And if the cast members who pooh-pooh Dave and Red’s barbecue would eat what their angry cast mates cook, at least all that food and calories wouldn’t go to waste. Potato chips and premade hamburgers might not signify utopia to them, but this is reality TV. Peacefully eating dinner together is about as close as the show is ever likely to get.