Has anyone put together a program to randomly generate Utopia episodes yet? It shouldn’t be all that hard, going by this list of discussion points we just whipped up:
*Malfunctioning office equipment / computer (VERY IMPORTANT)
*Interchangeable dialogue for the two ditzy office assistants (though their running jokes don’t overlap – if one is struggling with the faulty office equipment, the other is only dealing with confusing messages from elsewhere, and so on)
*Rob Sitch and Celia Pacquola having so few scenes together it’s like they had a brief affair off-camera and now hate each others’ guts.
*Did we mention the computer troubles?
*Lehmo being surprisingly convincing as a one-track mind dimwit who’s only joke is that the government wants the opposite of whatever the Nation Building Authority thinks is best. Why is there an NBA again?
*The rock solid comedy dynamic of “someone stupid / someone smart” playing out in every single scene, which is probably why Sitch and Pacquloa – as the only two smart characters in a sea of idiots – never seem to appear together.
*Vague decent political points about how developers get what they want and politicians only want projects that will make a splash / make them look good. Also vague less decent points about how art is pointless, the environment is an obstacle, consultation just sucks up time and effort for no good result and the public are nutters. Actually, that last point’s a good one too.
*The whole thing feeling like it’s lacking a certain something – Frontline worked even when it wasn’t hilariously funny because it was informative about the way tabloid television really worked, and it was scathing about it to boot. The Hollowmen, on the other hand, had (early on especially) a fairly feeble “all politicans are as bad as each other and politics is just aimless stuffing around” point-of-view, which meant that it felt both kind of gutless and oddly conservative. Utopia feels like it’s backed away from that a little – it’s only focusing on one small aspect of political life for one thing, and the desire to announce big projects really is bipartisan – but it still lacks the behind-the-scenes stuff that made Frontline really stand out. If you’re going to do lightweight, plot heavy comedy like this, you either need to be really really good at packing it with great gags, or you need to be actually informing your audience during the scenes where the jokes just aren’t there. It’s easy to forget that Yes, (Prime) Minister was actually lifting the lid on how the public service was really running the UK at the time – the occasional “gee, that explains a lot” moment was a big part of a): giving the viewers a break from all the wordplay and character hijinks, and b): providing a bit of weight to all the wordplay and character hijinks. You’ve got to get the audience to invest in a sitcom somehow, and if you can’t make them care about the characters it’s a huge help if you can tell them stuff that applies to someone they do care about – themselves.
*Something about how petty and silly office interactions are – signing cards for someone you’ve never met, having to do assessments of co-workers you’ve never met, forgetting the names of people you’ve never met. Anyone get the impression that the head honchos at Working Dog don’t really spend a lot of time interacting with the little people around their office?
*There’s probably some actual character differences between all the “dumb’ characters, but aside from Kitty Flanaghan’s PR flack / media advisor / person who reminds us that the the struggle in this show is between appearances and reality, they really do seem to be all the same person. Why do Working Dog write these big ensemble sitcoms? It worked in Frontline because the stupid characters were different – you had a burnout hack journo and a preening self-obsessed fashion plate as part of the on-air team, for starters – but they’re just not that different here. Yes (Prime) Minister only had three main characters, and so did The Games (ok, it crept up to four there): pretty much the entire regular cast here could be boiled down to Rob Sitch, a ditzy assistant, and a character combining Lehmo and Flanaghan’s roles. You’d have a much stronger dynamic between the three roles and you’d be able to tell pretty much all the same jokes. Plus it’d be cheaper! And also then Rob could play Rob, Santo could be the ditzy one and Tommy G could be the oily one. Which is probably how it breaks down in the writing, come to think of it.
* Some decent one-liners. Whatever their faults, Working Dog are still first-rate when it comes to firing off the gags.
*A refreshing focus on being funny rather than point-scoring. Unlike The Hollowmen, where it really did feel like Working Dog were trying to say something about our government, this is just them having a bit of fun with the stupid way political planning is currently playing out. Which is good. There’s probably a different sitcom somewhere to be made about the way that numerous competing interests actually like the way the system is currently broken as it serves them much more than it serves the general public, but whenever Utopia touches on those bigger themes getting a joke out of them is always the main goal. Whatever the shows other flaws, there at least they’ve got it 100% right.