Utopian Fantasies

Ok, so Utopia is back for a record-breaking (not really – ed) fifth season. It’s been almost a decade since season one first aired – surely after a tumultuous decade in politics this particular satire has morphed into something all but unrecognisable?

Rob Sitch as Tony in Utopia

Yeah, nah, it’s business as usual once again. You can’t really fault Working Dog for having an “if it ain’t broke” attitude to Utopia – it’s a well-oiled comedy machine, and they’ve said elsewhere that once they realised they could say everything they wanted to say with the format, the urge to move onto something new fizzled out. But do they still have anything worth saying on the subject of infrastructure planning?

That depends: did they ever? Utopia is a window back in time to a period where the so-called smart thinking was that both sides of politics were basically the same – self-promoters and media obsessives who had no ideological goals beyond clinging to power. Let’s think back over the last five years or so: does that really seem like an accurate description of the halls of power to you?

All the political schemes in Utopia are lightweight comedy boondoggles. At worst, there’s some generic pork barrelling going on; nobody’s taking aim at Robodebt here. It’s political satire for people who see themselves as being above politics, people who complain about where “their tax dollars are going” because the idea that poor and disadvantaged people might possibly need help is fine so long as it doesn’t stop the government from funneling cash into private schools and negative gearing.

Fortunately, going by the first episode back the big appeal this season is going to be watching Working Dog take on pressing issues like “what’s the deal with these new refrigerators?” and “why can’t I make jokes around the office like I used to?”. Both valid questions for the over-60s, and it’s not like the ABC audience is going to snap back “Ok boomer”.

(imagine a series identical to Utopia, but from the perspective of a): Jim and Rhonda, the game-playing go-getters just trying to get the good news out there, or b): any one of the constantly perplexed assistants and offsiders, lumbered with a weirdly intransigent boss who Just Doesn’t Get It)

But the main plot of week one – what’s the deal with these never ending roadworks – doesn’t seem to serve up the kind of pithy conclusion we used to see with Utopia. The comedy used to come from Rob Sitch’s Tony pointing out that what seems to be a flaw in the system is actually a feature. There’s always someone who profits from things being how they are, and they’re usually hard at work to keep it that way. (you’re talking about Working Dog, right? – ed)

The point of Tony’s quest this episode was more to underline the way that spin has soaked down to the roots of any big government activity or project. Everyone he met recited the same talking points and then going to the media only forced the organisation to double down on those talking points. Being one big circle – or ring road, if you like – was the point; it just wasn’t quite as satisfying as that classic scene where Tony pointed out to a bunch of defense chiefs that the whole point of our defense policy is to defend ourselves from our biggest trading partner.

Hey, they can’t all be winners. Having a reliable, competent, well-made sitcom back on our screens is cause for celebration even if things have been a little repetitious since at least season three. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that Working Dog have proven themselves to be masters of reinvention over the decades. Having them stick with Utopia for so long just makes us sad thinking about the two or three other brilliant sitcoms we might have had from them instead.

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  • evilcommiedictator says:

    Imagine a good show where they remove the “new printer not working” boomer office jokes, and focus on all the clever, funny stuff pointing out the political absurdity.
    Let’s call it The Hollowmen, and…….

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    It’d be interesting to know which one of the Working Dog team is behind those office subplots – when they said elsewhere that they could say everything they wanted to with Utopia, it felt like at least one of them wanted the ability to keep churning out those classic gags