'Utopia Falls': TV Review

Brooke Palmer
A killer soundtrack can't make up for how basic this dystopic drama is.
2/14/2020

Hulu's new young-adult sci-fi drama is like 'Divergent' meets 'Footloose' with some hip-hop flavor and a lot of very Canadian production values.

Have you ever wondered how winsome Canadian teens hundreds of years in the future will ponder hip-hop, musically and culturally?

Wait, really?

In that case, Hulu and CBC's new YA drama Utopia Falls has you covered.

If not, think of Utopia Falls as a Child's First Guide to Dystopia and a Child's First Guide to Hip-Hop. It skews really young, really basic and really simplistic, but if you can accept how primitive and occasionally even amateurish it is, maybe you'll be able to fixate on the terrific soundtrack and promising young cast and ignore how many times you've seen basically this story delivered with vastly more polish.

Created by R.T. Thorne, who directed early episodes and co-wrote the pilot with Joseph Mallozzi, Utopia Falls is likely to be compared to Hunger Games, but even that implies a greater degree of nuance than this slapdash take on the future exhibits. The backstory is that human dependence on technology fueled weakness and conflict and then, after something called The Great Flash, humanity went underground only to emerge centuries later in a domed community called New Babyl. Residents are divided into sectors — Nature, Progress, Industry and, for law-breakers, Reform — governed by the Authority, a tribunal of rules who aim to keep order with totalitarian slogans like, "For State/ For Community/ For All."

Helping maintain order in New Babyl in ways that the series lacks the capability to explain is the annual event known as the Exemplar, an entertainment competition pitting two dozen 16-year-olds from across the sectors in interdisciplinary ways meant to honor their communal history. The winner gets fame and it's unclear what else. The losers? Well, absolutely nothing seems to happen to them. So, in YA terms, it's like if the world of Divergent did America's Got Talent and there were no stakes.

The fresh-scrubbed contenders in the latest Exemplar include dancer Aliyah (Robyn Alomar), her dancer not-quite-boyfriend Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz), Reform outcasts Bodhi (Akiel Julien) and Mags (Mickeey Nguyen), plus Sage (Devyn Nekoda), Brooklyn (Humberly Gonzalez) and a few others. It's with total sincerity that I say that I appreciate that every time a character appears onscreen in the first episode, dialogue mentions their name and an expositional tidbit, because otherwise they wouldn't have personalities at all.

Early on their first night at the Exemplar Academy, Aliyah and Bodhi stumble into a mysterious bunker containing books, videos and a vast repository of musical information meted out by the Archive (voiced by Snoop Dogg). Fueled by newfound hip-hop knowledge, rebellion spreads through the Exemplar contenders and, because hip-hop is the music of revolution, it threatens the Authority, who try to squash this form of individual expression in a way that makes one yearn for the relative subtlety of Footloose. As Authority Phydra (Kate Drummond) explains, "We embrace diversity, it's our strength. But personal expression is something else. It fosters disharmony."

Meanwhile, a bunch of predictably soapy stuff — flirtations and love triangles and betrayals and whatnot — happens.

The lone distinctive aspect of Utopia Falls is its interest in hip-hop and, say what I will about the rest of the series, the soundtrack offers a wide-ranging overview of the genre from Grandmaster Flash to Biggie to Nas to Kendrick Lamar. Like many new converts, the teens become completely insufferable with their new enthusiasm, especially Bodhi, who immediately starts mansplaining the genre to every other character and making grand pronouncements of what hip-hop is or isn't — as if the 40-year history of the genre can be boiled down to one single kind of expression and as if the use of hip-hop by futuristic Canadians isn't just the latest step in a long history of appropriation.

Maybe if each of the sectors in New Babyl had been better defined through production design or contextual writing, Bodhi's dogged insistence that his own experience correlates cleanly with The Bronx of the '70s, his sanctimonious hip-hop purity — his argument that DJ Kool Herc is the all-time best MC is hipster nonsense — might be more tolerable. New Babyl looks like one mid-sized soundstage and each of the sectors looks like a smaller soundstage and if the population of New Babyl is more than 75 people, that doesn't come through. If you know Canadian sci-fi — and most members of the cast have a Dark Matter or Wynonna Earp or Orphan Black on their CV — you think you know what to expect from the production values here, but you need to set your expectations, especially for the special effects, lower.

The young stars have been cast to accentuate their Exemplar-friendly skills more than acting and so it's easy to say that Alomar, Nekoda and Graham-Kuntz appear to be terrific dancers, but aren't as comfortable with the need to convey emotion. It's harder to tell if any of the Exemplar contestants with focuses in music and singing are any good. It's my instinct that Gonzalez, Nekoda and Julien are the actors most likely to be able to parlay this exposure into more substantive Canadian sci-fi work — or they would be, except that despite the Exemplar's centrality to the story, perplexingly little of the series actually focuses on the characters exhibiting their talents through the six episodes I had the time or desire to watch. In those six episodes, there was all of one scene featuring the televised Exemplar competition and even that was just a performance of roughly a minute in length. The series needs much, much more dancing and singing, because otherwise it's just weakly developed palace intrigue and chaste teenage flirtation.

There's a respectable, but muddled, message here. Who's going to argue with a show arguing that living life truthfully is perhaps the path to true art and that true art is perhaps the path to general truth, especially when you have Snoop Dogg's voice periodically popping up to give brief lectures on topics as varied as civil disobedience and capoeira? It still has to function as a story, and Utopia Falls mostly settles for being a killer playlist and a series of fortune-cookie platitudes augmented by mediocre CG.

Cast: Robyn Alomar, Akiel Julien, Robbie Graham-Kuntz, Phillip Lewitski, Humberly Gonzalez, Devyn Nekoda, Mickeey Nguyen, Kate Drummond, Jeff Teravainen, Huse Madhavji, Dwain Murphy, plus the voice of Snoop Dogg
Creator: R.T. Thorne
Showrunner: Joseph Mallozzi
Premieres: Friday (Hulu)