If you’re making a sitcom that’s of a consistently high standard each week, that means you’re doing a good job, right? And Utopia is doing a good job; every episode it makes valid points about how government works (or doesn’t work) and it usually raises a few laughs along the way. So why, after three series, is Utopia leaving us cold?
Problem 1: Utopia is the same every week.
Tony’s got some big project he needs to move on but Jim and Rhonda turn up to make it impossible to do so. Which means major compromises on the project deliverables or a spin campaign about how well it’s going when in fact it’s not even happening, or everyone just sighing and kinda giving up.
Problem 2: All the characters in Utopia are stock characters.
Tony’s the guy in charge who wants to do things. Nat’s his second in command and she also wants to do things. Whereas Jim and Rhonda just turn up and tell them why they can’t do things, like they’re a pair of stuck records. And all the others are either annoying idiots, incompetent, or trying not to appear incompetent by nodding along. If they didn’t have different hair and skin colour it might be hard to tell them apart. Which leads us to…
Problem 3: None of the characters in Utopia have any depth.
What we’re watching every week is a slightly different plot and how some paper-thin characters deal with it. Utopia isn’t one of those shows where each week you get a different plot and because of how things are going in the character’s lives we might see them behave differently according to things they’ve experienced in previous episodes, like, say, in Mad Men or Orange Is the New Black.
This is a show where the reset button has been pressed between episodes, and while that’s worked for lots of comedies from the Warner Brothers cartoons to The Goodies to Get Krackin’, it seems pretty odd, tonally, in the context of a sitcom which in most other respects is in the realistic, single-camera style. Also, it means there’s no chance that any of the plots in the show can be character driven. So, there’s 50% of the show’s opportunities to funny out the window!
Problem 4: Those “modern life is rubbish” subplots.
What’s with how you can’t buy a simple ham sandwich on sliced white bread anymore? And why is coffee so complicated these days? Er, well, last time we had lunch in the CDB, where Utopia is set, you could and it isn’t. So, we didn’t really understand the subplot in episode 6 about how Tony couldn’t get a ham sandwich. We understood the bit in that same episode about how infrastructure was done better in the old days, before privatisation took over and turned everything into rort for property developers, but then, that’s actually true. The idea that office workers are forced to eat a pide or a ban mi baguette or some sushi, instead of a good old simple ham sandwich, for lunch, isn’t. So, they probably shouldn’t have tried to draw parallels there.
Problem 5: Satire on infrastructure isn’t funny in and of itself.
Or to be slightly more accurate, Working Dog haven’t found a way to make a weekly satire on infrastructure funny in and of itself. Plenty of shows have found the funny in infrastructure – Yes Minister, The Games – but then they weren’t always dealing with infrastructure. Sure, Working Dog have got around this flaw with their office obsession of the week sub-plot – a CEO sleepout, a recycling scheme, the new door locks don’t open – something so utterly ridiculous that it prevents everyone at the NBA from doing their jobs – and provides the audience laughs where the infrastructure plots can’t. But it’s still a major flaw in your comedy series if the main point of the show is something that’s never, ever going to be funny. Especially when the B plots start falling flat too. And after three series, they are feeling a bit samey.
So, as much as we hate to kick one of the better Australian sitcoms of recent years into the grass, guys, you might as well leave it there. Don’t worry about giving us a Series 4.
I’ve enjoyed series 3 but do agree with much of what you’ve written. Each episode is very much made from the same playlist.
On that basis it would be hard to imagine a series 4.
Working Dog has never had a narrative series that’s lasted longer than three series (Frontline is the only other three-series runners, although All Aussie Adventures will be getting a third series next year – Thank God You’re Here, The Panel and Have You Been Paying attention all ran longer but don’t have a narrative).
It is also true that Utopia feels a lot like The Hollow Men, and both share a lot of DNA with “The Games”, which did the whole comedy-of-bureaucracy a whole lot better than either. So, no, another series isn’t really necessary.