Vale Utopia 2023

Utopia has come to an end, as we knew it would. But is this goodbye, or merely “I’ll be back”?

Yeah, an 80s movie reference feels pretty on brand for Utopia. Despite being stocked with young comedic talent, this last season has been a firm reminder that the oldies haven’t retired yet and if this is how you plan to run the place once they’re gone then they might just stick around a few decades longer.

Utopia‘s strengths have always been obvious. Strong cast, well crafted scripts, multiple storylines that tie together well, decent jokes. Australian sitcoms don’t set a high bar; Utopia cleared it with ease. So it’s a sign of respect more than anything that we’re not just saying “eh, good enough” and moving on.

(little preview of our upcoming Vale for Gold Diggers there)

This season of Utopia didn’t quite tip over into full Boomer outrage at political correctness gone mad. Thank god (you’re here) for that. But too often it felt like a series where the overriding view was that all this modern focus on diversity and insensitivity and considering other people’s feelings was getting in the way of getting things done. Wait, “felt like”? By the final episode, it was saying that outright.

Which is actually pretty funny for a series about a government department made up of pointless middlemen managers whose sole reason for existing is to sign off on projects conceived by one group and constructed by another. It’s bureaucracy gone mad!

But c’mon, who doesn’t want a sharp satire on how government bureaucracy delays things and makes them more expensive because they have to justify spending taxpayers money and deal with politician’s whims? We do! But too often Utopia wasn’t it.

Utopia was a show about a government department that never found a way to turn the satirical spotlight on itself. The NBA – well, the Tony and Nat part at least – were never wrong, just exasperated. And yet if you bothered to look it wasn’t hard to find numerous points throughout the series where they were, if not completely wrong, then clearly not 100% right.

Example time: remember the episode with the school kids hanging around? They were annoying smartarses that everyone wanted to pass off to someone else because they were… knowledgeable and engaged?

Within the world of the series, the joke worked fine. They were an intrusion getting in the way of our cast doing their jobs; piss those brats right off. Once you stepped outside of the series? Hang on – the kids were just making them do their jobs. Which is funny… if your show is about a bunch of lovable slackers sticking it to the man by slacking off. Utopia is about the last two hardworking, sane people in a public service gone mad; making fun of kids because they also know what they’re talking about feels a bit off.

In fact, whenever the Utopia team deals with the public they’re a pain in the arse. Talkback callers (and the politicans who listen to them) are constantly demanding the impossible. Protestors don’t know what they’re on about. Modern standards of inclusiveness and integration are silly distractions. People get angry on social media for no reason at all! Okay, maybe the show had a point there.

Usually all this was presented as annoying time wasting crap coming from the NBA’s nominal bosses. But behind them, the public – on social media, on talkback radio, booing Tony on Q&A. And yet, Utopia is a show about government and the public service. Their whole job is based on managing and dealing with public demands. Tony and Nat may not have customers, but they work for the public. Those scenes where they’re told they have to take into account some new rule or attitude and they all but roll their eyes? They’re the ones in the wrong.

Early on the joke with Utopia was “the government keep promising these big schemes that are never going to happen haha high speed rail”. Increasingly the focus shifted to old people being annoyed that things have changed in the workplace and they can’t quite see the point. Which is a strong basis for comedy, only usually the old people are shown as out of touch hangovers from a time best forgotten not the last remaining voice of sanity, insert Principal Skinner “no, it’s the children who are wrong” meme here.

So what is Utopia trying to say? And it’s definitely trying to say something; it’s not Aunty Donna’s Coffee Cafe. Each week Tony and Nat* are forced to deal with the fact that their co-workers in the public service and their bosses in government are easily distracted, obsessed with irrelevancies, slaves to a fickle public, and not really interested in results. Just let us do our jobs!

Which involve… handling multiple overlapping issues simultaneously, dealing with the often conflicting concerns of a variety of stakeholders, managing public expectations, and working with timelines that in many cases extend well beyond any one political leader or department head. Wait, so Tony and Nat are complaining about what? Having to do their jobs?

Obviously the whole lousy system is broken. Drain the swamp! But you know, not like that. Just get rid of all the red tape and regulations! They’re getting in the way of decent, hard working people doing their real jobs! Sure, the red tape and regulations are often there to stop people being racist or sexist or ableist, but c’mon. We’re building a highway here, you’ve got to let the guys let off some steam.

After all that, there are two possible takeaways from Utopia. A): political correctness has indeed gone mad. B): government bodies are so concerned with side issues they’re no longer able to properly do their jobs. The team at Working Dog seem like decent people, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Option number two it is.

So why say that? It’d be nice to think the idea is to present the NBA as a decent, well-run, hard-at-it government body hamstrung by politicans. Sadly, most of the time the problems are presented as internal and intrinsic to a public body that has to respond to the public. So the answer lies in the private sector, where we just hire them to get the job done and leave them to it?

Trouble there is, a decade ago the idea that private industry was superior to the government when it comes to building infrastructure and providing services was just barely plausible. Today? Putting pubic services and infrastructure into private hands just means the government – that is, the public – is forced to pay rent on roads and facilities and utilities for decades while corporations – that is, not the public – cash in.

It’s a shit idea that sucks. In 2023 it makes as much sense as a basis for a comedy series as the wacky antics of a group of bureaucrats determined to cut back on the public health system because private industry can do it so much better. Well, for rich people at least.

The strange thing is, Utopia started out as a series designed to point out that very thing. Early episodes would present some element or other of perceived wisdom – high speed rail is a thing that will happen! Then they’d explain carefully and precisely why there were very good (but largely hidden) reasons why things are exactly why they are, and are unlikely to change.

It’s not hard to imagine an episode where some blokey politician turns up demanding to slash red tape. Let’s remove all the seemingly pointless concerns about office paintings not being inclusive and whatever! And then Tony could carefully point out to him across the course of the episode that every single example he wants removed has been put in place to help and assist people. Just not people the politician was used to considering as part of the workplace.

Maybe they’re holding that one back for next season.


*Does anyone else think it’s strange that the two leads are basically identical and almost never interact? Obviously it’s so they can run similar storylines about different things – one gets the big external issues, the other gets the office / internal storylines – but it does leave the series feeling a bit repetitive, especially as everyone else is basically playing the same character, which is “an idiot”.

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