I set out for the badlands of Utopia, Fox’s televised experiment in communal living, with an open heart and an open mind. Though the show has been languishing in the ratings — it’s been trimmed down to a single hour on Friday night after initially occupying two prime-time slots on the network’s fall schedule, and the expectations about its cancellation seem to be “any day now” — I decided that I would not approach the commune as though it were failing, partially because its residents aren’t fully aware that it is failing. The “pioneers” who live in the farmlike environment that serves as the sandbox for the show have been there for 50 days now, blissfully unaware that the show has not been the ratings sensation Fox was hoping for. They did not even really know how long they had been there. When we informed them they’d hit Day 50, the pioneers I met seemed surprised, telling us that they might have believed us if we had said a year had passed.
When Utopia premiered, I had several friends who have lived in co-ops tell me that they had always thought the experience would make for a good reality show. The debates and drama on Utopia, or any strangers-in-a-house reality show, for that matter, are familiar to anyone who’s lived with more than one other person: Who is stealing personal condiments? Who is having sex with whom, and how do they continue to coexist when they’re not having sex anymore? There is endless material to be mined out of people from different walks of life trying to coexist, peacefully or otherwise, and ideally bonding by the end. I agree with Emily Yoshida’s argument that the show’s protracted mundanity is its strength. Humans have a difficult time living together, but they must, and it can even be incredibly rewarding. Because Utopia is not a game show, the goals are oblique. But they are also fairly obvious: don’t kill each other and don’t run out of food. It’s the heart of the original Real World.
The show may not be the reality TV revolution that Fox hoped for, but it has developed a rabid online fandom. Devotees patrol the 24-hour premium account live feeds and blog about the most interesting developments. I had been considering visiting the show’s weekly bazaar, the Utopia Experience, where you can pay Utopia cast members for jewelry, paintings, or services like yoga classes and archery lessons. But instead I got an invitation to the set from producer Jon Kroll on Twitter. I accepted, and tweeted that I was preparing for my “new life at Utopia.” That led to a flurry of tweets from various people asking if I was the newest member of Utopia. “Who is Molly Lambert?” one Utopia fan asked another conspiratorially. I hoped to find that out myself, at the Utopia set.
Utopia exists somewhere near Santa Clarita, in the north San Fernando Valley, on the edge of Angeles National Forest. It was a straight shot north up the freeway, followed by a series of windy but wide canyon roads with beautiful vistas of the forest and minimally developed ranch land. The property is on a movie studio ranch, one of those rural compounds that studios turned into shooting locations. Most studio ranches are clustered in the foothills of the Valley, and are often used to shoot Westerns, although they can be set-dressed into standing in for a variety of locations. When I found out the location of Utopia, I immediately wondered how close it was to Spahn Ranch, the abandoned studio ranch that the Manson family took over and squatted in during the late ’60s. (It turns out Spahn is about 15 miles west of Utopia.)
While the ranches no longer belong to major studios, and most of them have been flipped and razed into suburbs, a few still exist and remain in use. The ranch where Utopia is shot was developed fairly recently — NCIS and Justified shoot nearby, and from the top vantage point one can see that the other half of the property contains the huge empty pools from ABC’s Japanese knockoff obstacle-course game show, Wipeout. The grounds of Utopia were an appropriately surreal contrast between the real and fake.
The property is sprawling and wild; it is, after all, on the edge of a forest. It was foggy and cold (for L.A.), and I relished the opportunity to put on an Outlander-esque knit plaid cloak and pretend I was in the misty moors. A bunny hopped in front of us as we parked, chipmunks scampered, and large birds flew overhead. In addition to the large, newly constructed faux-farm that comprises Utopia, the ranch also has a very rundown-looking Old West town, a bunch of rusted-out vintage trucks and cars overgrown with gnarled plants, and an abandoned silver train on tracks leading to nowhere. I felt like I was location-scouting the next season of True Detective. Kroll informed us that the original Dutch version of Utopia was shot in a former prison, and that he wanted a different feel for the American remake. He made it Californian by adding a pool, which the Utopians have been licensed to fish in.
We were greeted by a liaison, who led us into an extensive production facility constructed out of trailers. Walking into the building, we were transported back to reality, as it were, through a series of offices and cubicles and break rooms identical to any other production office. That is, until we were led into the main control room, a wall filled with monitors where Utopia’s ambient cameras feed video streams to a team of observers, who mark down any important comments or incidents that could be worked into future episodes. The giant wall of screens showing every angle of the commune filled me with overwhelming wonder. Some pioneer I’d make.
But that’s part of Utopia’s appeal for me. It’s a Luddite’s fantasy world where technology is wiped away for an arbitrary reason, but it’s also an extremely high-tech filming operation that uses necklace mics, camouflaged cameras, and occasionally a drone to document all the action taking place at the commune. It takes the co-op principle of open communication and leadership transparency to the furthest point, a Black Mirror–like scenario for optimists who think invasive surveillance can help stem corruption by never allowing any doors to remain fully closed.
America has a long history with experimental living arrangements, religious and secular — the U.S. itself could be called an extended experiment in alternative living. The Shakers moved from Manchester, England, to Watervliet, New York, and had a long, successful run from 1774 until the Civil War. The New England transcendentalists were fond of Utopian living experiments — Louisa May Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, founded a commune called Fruitlands that lasted less than seven months.
Intentional communities are not unique to California, but they certainly have a long and storied history here. California, for many, represents the possibilities of newness, the ability to pioneer new types of lifestyles. California as a destination for New Age rebirth is clichéd, but it remains true for the same reason places like upstate New York and the Southwest also attract communes: an abundance of land. It still bears marks of being a former territory, when land ownership was relatively easier to dispute. A multitude of communities have sprung up and died off over the past two centuries: Altruria, a Christian socialist community in Sonoma County, lasted only a few months in 1894 before it was doomed by money problems. Icaria Speranza, a spinoff of the French Icarians, was an egalitarian community in Cloverdale that lasted from 1881 to 1886. The Little Landers spawned a series of small colonies up and down California that failed for reasons like tax evasion and poor soil.
Llano del Rio was a commune in the Antelope Valley created by socialist politician Job Harriman after a failed mayoral run in 1911. A sponsored article in The Western Comrade from 1914 about Llano del Rio portrayed it as a beautiful, lush Eden full of fruit orchards, but many who arrived were unhappy to discover they’d be living in shacks. Llano del Rio was intended to be a socialist microcosm that would light the way for other similar new living experiments, although its promise of being open to all applicants who could afford to buy their shares was untrue; it was open only to whites. At its height, Llano del Rio contained a fish hatchery, farms, a schoolhouse, and a baseball team, among other amenities. The commune hosted weekly community picnics where they staged entertainment for the residents (that included, among other things, blackface minstrel shows). Liquor was banned, and the gendered division of labor was enforced.
For a utopia, Llano del Rio sure was square. It was also run in a nondemocratic manner by a board of directors, whose members fought one other for control. Harriman was taken down by a splinter group of dissidents called the “Brush Gang” who thought Llano del Rio wasn’t socialist enough. Llano del Rio was eventually doomed by a lack of water after the state rejected their application for a permit to build a dam. In 1917 the commune uprooted from California and moved to Louisiana, where it formed New Llano. New Llano failed, a victim of the Great Depression and shifting cultural attitudes. Financial problems led to its demise in 1939.
Other communes have fared better. The Hog Farm in Sunland-Tujunga, California, was founded by Friend of the Grateful Dead and non-scary clown Wavy Gravy as a traveling group of peace activists who worked security at Woodstock and the Texas International Pop Festival. The Hog Farm is now headquartered in Berkeley with an outpost called Black Oak Ranch that hosts music festivals for charitable causes.
Hippie communes like The Farm (founded in 1971) and Twin Oaks (1967) continue to exist, but not without difficulty. The Farm has shifted away from its original practice of group marriage and its early ban on contraceptives and abortions, which led to an extreme rise in births that put the community in debt and spurred a mass exodus. Twin Oaks, inspired by B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, has been called out for limiting membership and for being uh, disgustingly filthy. (Let’s not forget that in the original Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s mom was still doing his laundry.) And of course, after the Manson Family murders in 1969 and the mass suicide and killings in Jonestown in 1978, the idea of separatist living situations as being conducive to peace and love was forever sullied.
The Utopian image of any “Utopia” is just that; an image. The day-to-day issues inherent in managing a group of people are not glamorous. Communes are subject to all kinds of obstacles: farming conditions, splinter groups, struggles over leadership. Additionally, groups attempting to separate from society tend to attract the types of people who want to live on the fringes, not all of whom are compatible with the practical, mundane challenges of chore assignments. And there’s the rub. No matter how pie-in-the-sky a Utopian community may start out, practical decisions always come into play and create friction. How to pay for things? How to divide food evenly? Who is in charge here exactly? “Utopia” is always more of a theory than a specific, definable set of practices — it’s subjective, and anyway how can you honor everyone’s individuality and also serve the group?
The pioneers of Utopia are just the newest iteration of an ancient problem. How to live together peacefully? You can’t just fully separate from society. At least not yet. And if cancellation really does come knocking on its door soon, how will the Utopia pioneers adjust to suddently being sent back into the real world? The big change on the show announced this week is that Utopia will allow audiences to determine the fate of the pioneers, rather going with the vote from within. The last time the pioneers voted, they opted to oust Red, who made for good television but was insufferable to deal with. The new model will take power away from the Utopians and put it in the hands of the audience, which isn’t very Utopian. But Utopian communities often have to morph midstream in order to persevere. By changing the game, Utopia is remaining true to the spirit of Utopias. Existence is change.
This article has been updated to make the following corrections: The Shakers arrived in the United States in 1774, and not 1776. New Llano went out of existence in 1939, and not 1918. And the Jonestown killings occurred in 1978, not 1974.