Utopia/Dystopia: Unpacking Fox’s Startlingly Racist, Sexist, Retrograde Flop of a Reality Series
What is the single most influential sentence written for television in the last 25 years? Here’s my nominee: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” For viewers of a certain age, the word “taped” alone should strum a chord of nostalgia. In the spring of 1992, those words opened the first episode of the first season of MTV’s The Real World — reality TV before air quotes and billions of dollars in revenue got draped around the phrase. Some critics, who had no idea that a revolution was beginning, dismissed the series as “painfully bogus” and “excruciating torture,” while the New York Times called it “the year’s most riveting television.”
It turned out to be a very short leap from seven strangers picked to live in a loft to 16 strangers picked to compete on an island. And it has been a very steep plunge from there to the September 7 premiere of Fox’s Utopia, the self-described “social experiment” that marks the first of fall’s new network series and, barring a turnaround that just isn’t gonna happen, the season’s first large-scale disaster.
How large-scale? A reported $50 million has gone into setting up the California compound where 15 people are purportedly to spend the next year inventing and maintaining their own rural agrarian society. How disastrous? The show launched with three episodes spread over a week during which the other networks were still airing mostly reruns. The first drew a barely OK 4.6 million viewers. But by Episode 3, five nights later, viewership had sunk to 1.99 million and a 0.7 in the key demographic — meaning that Utopia attracted fewer 18-to-49-year-olds than a Friday-night rerun of Tim Allen in Last Man Standing.
Clearly, we’re not going to have this social experiment to kick around for much longer, so while there’s time, let me pull on my steel-toed boots, because based on its first five hours, Utopia is, not to overstate matters, painfully bogus and excruciating torture — everything that is repugnant, divisive, and cynical about the melting-pot subgenre of reality TV. I recently rewatched the first few episodes of the 1992 Real World and was surprised to see how touchingly gentle they were; it turns out that the show’s real mission was to find out what happens when people start getting real while remaining largely polite. TRW’s first season radiated a cheerful, dawn-of-the-Clinton-era conviction that if you united seven young people from disparate backgrounds, they would grow by virtue of their exposure to one another, and those of us who watched would also broaden our minds as a result. That famous tagline, which introduced each half-hour episode, was there not just to set a tone but to articulate a kind of politics — it was spoken as a daisy-chain voice-over, with each cast member saying a few of the words, then, sometimes with a slight overlap, passing the baton to the next. To get from the beginning to the end, it took a village.
In its early years, The Real World was progressive in some overt ways — it was hands down the gay-friendliest show of its era — but also in its subtext. It believed that a common good could be achieved by acknowledging and respecting people’s differences rather than by obliterating them. It believed that a white girl from Alabama who would spot the beeper (1992!) of an African American girl from New Jersey and make a joke about her being a drug dealer might not only have something to learn, but be willing and able to learn it. And it believed in the idea of the city — any city — as a landscape of enlightenment where the sheer proximity of different people from different places could incrementally erode ignorance. It also tried not to artificialize the lives of its participants more than necessary — yes, it threw them together in a loft, but there were no competitions, no prize money, and no host, just a set of camera crews that attempted to document the twentysomethings as they tried to make friends, find jobs (being a reality star was not yet considered a profession in itself), and shape their adult futures.1
Survivor, which arrived in the Clinton era’s angrier, post-impeachment twilight, replaced the hopefulness of The Real World with a kind of gym-teacher Darwinism: Life is a contest, only one can win, and the right balance of strength and cunning will get you through. Big Brother took that formula and further sexed it up/dumbed it down — it, too, suggested that life is a contest, albeit one that requires no specific skill but your appetite to be on camera, rut, and connive; in your off hours, you should feel free to sit around and sulk or look pretty so the rest of us can sneer at you.
And now comes Utopia, which is, in every sense, the anti–Real World. Unlike that series, which was an actual social experiment but didn’t trumpet the point, Utopia constantly announces that it is a mad scientist’s den in which the goal is for the lab mice to “find out what they can learn about life, love, and happiness.” But naturally, the show has selected its subjects with an eye to rigging the results. The people cast on Utopia may, outside of the context of this series, be pleasant and functional human beings. However, as presented on the air, they are, almost to a man and woman, loudmouths, bullies, narcissists, and/or nitwits who seem to have been chosen based upon how many negative stereotypes they might serve to reinforce. At least half of the men are drunks or assholes in a losing battle with serious rage issues; the women, when the show bothers to notice them, are interested primarily in the men. They are presided over by (but do not interact with) a cartoonist turned vested Cabaret MC named Dan Piraro, who stays outside the gates of their walled-in universe and styles himself to look like the world’s most evil old-timey sarsaparilla salesman. His distanced (and distancing) steampunk vibe seems meant to convey something slightly sinister — perhaps the idea that the homesteaders of Utopia aren’t setting up anything, but rather being set up. They’re the tiny residents of a city in a bottle, placed there for our delectation and contempt.
In Piraro’s Utopia narration, all of the participants are given simple, one-idea labels that are used again and again: There’s “Survivalist Bella” and “Ex-Con Dave” and “Contractor Josh,” and Rob, who loves his guns, hates “liberal douchebags,” and is either “Libertarian Rob” or “Patriot Rob,” depending on the show’s mood. In the first few hours — which covered Week 1 in Utopia — the belligerent, often physical explosions of Josh, Rob, and Dave were prominently featured, along with those of toothless “Hillbilly Red,” who initially said he was out to disprove stereotypes about toothless hillbillies, then proceeded to smash stuff, holler like Yosemite Sam, threaten people, and spout senseless bullshit. (In reflective moments that are apparently intended to dimensionalize him, he says things like “I’ve had several family members killed by other family members.”) If Red seems, as casting directors say, a little too on-the-nose, that’s probably because he is, as it turns out, a reality-show veteran who, under a different name, previously starred in the Discovery Channel series Blue Grass Boys.
A capacity for sudden anger seems to have been the second most important qualification for the men seeking to be cast, the most important being that everyone on the show must be exactly who you think they are the minute you meet them. As for why the women were chosen, let’s have a look: Pretty young Bri just wants to hook up (a couple of bland, non-rage-afflicted, thus-far-interchangeable white dudes have been cast presumably for just that purpose). Nikki is a yoga teacher who likes Tantric sex. Bella is not only a survivalist but a microwave-fearing vegan. She gets mad at Contractor Josh after Contractor Josh gets blind drunk on Night 1 and behaves so menacingly that he’s almost ejected from the show, but then she realizes that, tee-hee, she actually has a crush on him. There’s a young woman with two boyfriends and a girlfriend in the outside world who is referred to as “Polyamorist Dedeker” (she can have whichever guy Bri doesn’t want, I guess). And Amanda, whom I believe is Utopia’s only African American woman, is pregnant but hasn’t told anyone except the African American chef, Aaron,2 because in the stultifying sociology of this series, you know, those people stick together.
Utopia is as noxious as any episode of Bachelor in Paradise when it comes to gender, but it’s even cruder in the area of race, where even the most vulgar reality shows tend to tread more cautiously. In the show’s first week, a lot of airtime was devoted to Dave Green, a homeless former burglar now in his early thirties who’s trying to make a new start after prison. (It’s hard to imagine a worse environment for him.) Dave is unpredictably and ungovernably angry; when he feels he’s being disrespected or when things are moving too fast for him, he loses it in ways he clearly can’t control — most pathetically in an episode in which he and Hillbilly Red decide to start their own “Utopia State of Freedom” and blow their share of the new society’s money on junk food.3 It’s their right because, Dave shouts, he’s indigenous to this new land, he doesn’t want to eat “no pickled horseradishes,” he doesn’t care about things like vitamins and nutrients, and he is not, in fact, interested in living that long.
Dave’s volatility is not tolerated the way Red’s or Josh’s or Rob’s is, and after two weeks or so, he packs his stuff, muttering something about how he’s going to end up back in jail if he has to spend another minute with these people (the wisest thing anyone on the show has said). He quits Utopia by intentionally violating a rule of the show: He walks through the front gate, Truman Show–style, and presumably back into the real world, or at least into the hands of the hapless producers.4 A couple of days later, now contrite, he writes the Utopians a letter asking to be let back in, if not permanently, then at least for long enough so that he can be baptized by Pastor Jonathan (who is exactly the drawling brandisher of the Good Book out of central casting that you’d expect). The Utopians vote to OK the baptism but enforce the banishment. Dave is off the series. After his initial walkout, two of the cast members chatted.
“He’s a stupid individual,” one remarks.
“Yeah, well, that’s not gonna change,” the other replies.
“He made his bed,” says Contractor Josh. “It’s like trying to keep a gorilla behind a cage.”
I’m not sure why a white man casually comparing a man of color to a gorilla in a cage on a major American network is not being discussed as a benchmark moment in the recent history of TV racism (perhaps it’s because, judging from the ratings, I may have been the only person to witness it). But the sentiment isn’t out of line with Utopia’s worldview. So far, the show’s narrative has been shaped to prove a point, which is that the smuggest initial suspicions of its target audience are almost always correct. That jailbird is never going to make it in the world because he doesn’t know how to behave around decent people. That hillbilly can’t take care of himself; if he had any sense he’d still have his teeth. That anxious woman who’s always hugging herself is so bossy and high-strung because she doesn’t have a man. That black woman shouldn’t have come into these living conditions not telling anyone she was carrying a baby, because that’s a burden on society.
Presumably, viewers are meant to cluck and shake their heads and say, well, what can you expect? The effect is like the real-life version of a passage in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” in which two characters assert their superiority over someone they think is trashy by exchanging self-satisfied glances; what passes between them is a “look … that indicated they both understood that you had to have certain things before you could know certain things.”
This attitude, when stripped of O’Connor’s unsparing awareness of the hypocrisy and moral ugliness it embodies, represents a kind of comfort to people who feel alienated or angered by anything or anyone they don’t understand — it tells them that if they grasp people as types, they know all they need to know and don’t need to tax themselves with empathy, or even with specifics. As Dave leaves, Nikki hugs him and says, “People do change, you know?” It’s a startling moment for this show; however, her sentiment is all but lost since she’s not a big personality and Utopia has spent barely any time with her; it’s not the least bit interested in the idea that people change. As for the baptism that ends his story arc, since it’s performed by a man he’s known for less than two weeks and who he insists is like a father to him, it feels, as presented, like Redemption Lite, a glibly swift “… and then he found God” wrap-up that allows the Utopians, and viewers, to put away any concerns about this still-troubled man and send him on his way.
Which leads to a question: Whose Eden is this anyway? Because unless you dream of surrendering whatever device you’re using to read this story in order to spend a year sharing a toilet with 14 people, it’s not yours, or mine. The “utopia” that Fox has set up is engineered for people who distrust or resent modern civilization, who want to get away from urbanity and anything that smacks of sophistication so they can return to some imaginary first principles in which men do the building, women grow the vegetables, self-determination is paramount, and government barely exists. Fox has created a world in which outside information is a potential poison that needs to be strictly limited and in which there are no rules but the small handful that everyone agrees are essential.
That vision isn’t designed to appeal to liberals, progressives, city-dwellers, feminists, or sexual or racial minorities, nor is it politically neutral; it’s an amalgamation of ideas espoused by elements within the conservative and libertarian movements. (Last week, the Washington Post quoted a friend of the libertarian Republican senator Rand Paul to the effect that Paul’s personal vision of utopia is basically America circa 1792 but without slavery. He’d probably enjoy this show.)
So it’s no surprise that when this brave new world spits out “Ex-Con Dave,” the producers swiftly send in a muscly white guy from Nebraska to replace him. That won’t be the last time that the population of Utopia turns over; every month, someone will leave and the remaining participants will select a new citizen to join them. This month, both of the candidates put forward by the producers are blonde white women; one describes herself as an entrepreneur and fiscal conservative, the other as a tea party activist. Those are the only options. That’s not a social experiment; it’s social engineering.
For all of its blather about building a new society, Utopia’s real endgame may be to rebuild a very old one. Ideologues of a certain stripe may relate to the crankiness that lies beneath its premise, which is that America is going to hell in a handbasket and can’t be fixed except by undoing decades of what many of us call “progress.” If, however, the cast’s almost immediate degeneration into fury, chaos, enmity, and entropy continues, then an even older conservative point will have been proved — the notion Thomas Hobbes put forth in 1651 that in the absence of strong authoritarian rule, the ungoverned rabble will inevitably turn on itself like rats in a barrel. If the Utopians find themselves in a constant state of civil war, they might be reminded of Hobbes’s belief that under those circumstances, life tends to be “nasty, brutish, and short.” Those words may not end up characterizing the world these Utopians are creating. But they’re probably going to be the perfect description of this show’s prime-time lifespan.