It’s been hard not to feel a little uncomfortable watching Utopia lately. Every week there’s a subplot about a culture war-type issue (training on respect in the workplace kills off a burgeoning romance, a staff member objects to a poster because it sends a non-inclusive message, an old photo surfaces of Nat wearing a Sombrero and this is interpreted as cultural appropriation) and the conclusion seems to be that caring about issues like sexual harassment, inclusivity and identity is, at worst, bad, or, at least, a waste of time.
And, sure, Utopia is far from equivalent to a Sky News rant on how “the woke brigade” are making the lives of “ordinary people” worse. But the basic conclusion seems to be the same: this stuff has gone too far.
Of course, how it comes across on the show and what it’s intended to be, might be different. Episodes in earlier series of Utopia included subplots making fun of the way in which a seemingly basic social event in an office, such as a morning tea, can take far longer to organise and involve far more people than it should. And arguably, the culture war-type subplots in the current series are an extension of that comic idea; groups of people in an office can devote more time than is perhaps necessary to something that is not an organisation’s core business.
Having said that, this type of comedy is probably the sort of thing you find funnier the further up the hierarchy in an organisation you are. If you’re in the lower strata of an organisation, a half-hour spent away from your desk chatting and eating cake is a good thing. As is having greater confidence that issues like sexual harassment, equity and cultural identity are understood by your colleagues.
Watching these subplots play out, therefore feels a bit uncomfortable. Especially as Utopia often isn’t a terribly funny program. You also start to wonder if the viewpoint Utopia seems to be expressing genuinely reflects the views of the writers, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, and Santo Cilauro, three of the most prolific, successful, and respected comedy writers and performers in this country over the past four decades.
Utopia seems to be a far cry from the days of Frontline when Gleisner, Sitch, Cilauro and Jane Kennedy understood and perfectly satirised one thing that really has gone too far: tabloid journalism. The same tabloid journalism, such as the Murdoch-owned media and the Daily Mail, that push ideas about “the woke brigade” and stoke community fears about ethnic minorities (e.g., African gangs) or how the advancement of women is causing problems for men.
So, are these sub-plots in Utopia a reflection of Gleisner, Sitch and Cilauro’s point of view? Or is it careless or thoughtless writing? We suspect more the latter, and there’s no evidence that they hold racist or sexist viewpoints*. It also feels like the kind of comedy you write if you’ve, say, been running your own company for three decades, rather than, say, being a jobbing writer/performer.
It also feels like a direct response to observing phenomena like “cancel culture” and the so-called “New Puritanism” and imagining how that might play out in an office. And, yes, it’s true that people trying to tackle these issues do over-correct, but fixing the problem is important, and if you ridicule trying to fix the problem too hard it does tend to look like you prefer the status quo.
As the kids say, “Pick a side”. And in the case of Utopia, the side the writers have picked seems to be “this is bad”.
* Although the several examples of blacking up in The Late Show are a bit of a shock.