A globe-spanning pandemic, conspiracy-fueled protests, Chicago on the world stage: Amazon wanted Gillian Flynn to create an American “Utopia,” but her adaptation became an insightful piece of TV ESP.
The novel coronavirus might be the touchstone that jumps out to audiences when the series premieres Friday, but that’s just where the parallels start. Cutting to our cultural quick is the show’s spin on a typical U.S. response to a nationwide problem: anger, paranoia and plenty of ulterior motives looking to make use of each. “The number of ways that the show echoes the real world is truly uncanny,” said star Rainn Wilson. And this soothsaying is anything but soothing.
Author-turned-showrunner Flynn’s violent, bitterly funny remix of Dennis Kelly’s British original unleashes a virus “as lethal as the Spanish flu — a world-killer” battled by both rock star biotech mogul Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack, in his first regular TV role) and worker-drone virologist Michael Stearns (Wilson). The former is recognizable to anyone who’s witnessed Elon Musk’s cult of personality; the latter, an unintentional allegory for healthcare heroes like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Meanwhile, a nerdy group of comic obsessives — Ian (Dan Byrd), Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Wilson (Desmin Borges), Samantha (Jessica Rothe) and Grant (Javon Walton) — attempt to reach the truth behind the outbreak. Their clues come hidden in graphic novels named “Utopia” and “Dystopia” from the mysterious Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane) — who also happens to be the subject of the comics themselves.
It’s as if “The Manchurian Candidate” starred the cast of “Freaks and Geeks,” where punches and punchlines duke it out with the same verve as Flynn’s work in “Gone Girl.” As Cusack puts it, Flynn makes “the horrific and the absurd merge.” But it’s Flynn’s cynical insight into the nation that takes the show from unfortunate COVID-19 coincidence to damning divination. “I’ve added entire characters and plotlines,” Flynn said in September 2019, during one of the last days on set. “I want it to feel American.” In 2020, it certainly does.
It’s been almost a year since “Utopia” wrapped production outside Chicago. Images from Flynn’s adoptive home — a cop tells a kid to take off his hood outside downtown’s Harold Washington Library Center — evoke memories of the city’s revolt against racist police brutality over the summer. Lane’s young truth-teller pursued by the Man is similarly resonant, more Mulder than Bourne. “You can sum up a badass with a leather jacket, y’know?” Lane said of the action hero vibes she’s out to avoid.
When Flynn started writing in 2013, when HBO originally hired her and director David Fincher for the project, there was already a “friction,” as she calls it, of conspiracy running through the country — like the anti-vaccine movement. Alongside scornful allusions to other American essentials, like consumerism (hoarders and overflowing trash cans pop up intermittently), Flynn’s “Utopia” is all about the country’s relationship with the truth.
(Elizabeth Morris / Amazon Studios)
“It’s good to have a healthy amount of doubt and a healthy amount of cynicism,” Flynn said, “but unless we can all agree that there does exist such a thing as basic truth and basic science, we’re at a very scary place.
“We’re now in a place where we’re willing to be manipulated by who has the best spin, or who tells us something in the most interesting way, or who feeds our Twitter the quickest. That scares the s— out of me.”
Cut to September 2020, when American audiences who’ve lived through more than six months of the COVID-19 pandemic will immediately recognize a member of the 1% with ulterior motives spreading lies. Playing Dr. Christie led Cusack to draw from his own travels through the world of high-level philanthropy. “Some of them are people with incredibly driven missions,” Cusack said of those he’d met, “and some of them are kind of insane with what they want to do.”
Wilson — between references to Pizzagate and climate change deniers — sees the crisis of our contradictory world in the series: “Everything is mixed up and upside-down, and that’s how the world is right now. That’s why conspiracy theories are so prevalent.”
The fiction of “Utopia,” filled with fake news (background TVs often report the opposite of what’s shown in the scene) and literal string-and-corkboard walls, trickles down from Trump’s reality. “You now have this situation where on Facebook and some of these alt-right platforms, they’ll have the Trump tapes where he admits to talking to Bob Woodward and they’ll say, ‘That’s fake,’” said Cusack. “That’s quite an achievement for the forces of evil: to brainwash people into believing that they’re not able to identify any facts.”
The deception in “Utopia” reflects what the World Health Organization calls the “infodemic” accompanying COVID-19. Countries like Vietnam and New Zealand have had transparent, unified responses. America has had in-fighting, rebellion and falsehoods. The country has seen protests not only from those upset by the government’s response but also from those calling safety precautions fascistic. Similar protests, sign-heavy and angry, rally against the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in “Utopia.” Its bad guys have a repeated, cultish mantra with shades of “Make America Great Again.” And none of it was in Kelly’s original. “He gave me this amazing DNA and I’ve f—d with it,” Flynn said of making the material cross the pond.
The resulting mutation pulls straight from the nation’s top: Whether it’s President Trump’s Anti-Asian racism, repeated denials of the pandemic’s threat and impact, or snake-oil sales pitches, the head of the country is also its crackpot-in-chief. And the willingness to believe in complex lies over simple truths permeates the show as national politics increasingly accommodate similarly ridiculous intrigue. Twenty-four current candidates for Congress have promoted or endorsed QAnon conspiracies. It’s an alt-right Facebooker’s bastardization of the paranoid, antiauthoritarian ’70s thrillers Flynn cites as influences. “I pitched this as ‘Goonies’ meets ‘Marathon Man,’” she said. “‘Parallax View,’ ‘Three Days of the Condor’ — I watched those so many times.” The country’s trust issues haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve just been redirected.
(Elizabeth Morris / Amazon Studios)
“It’s that head-in-the-sand, ‘someone’s gonna fix it’ sort of feeling,” Flynn said of conspiracies like COVID-19 denial. “Because we’re such a rich nation historically, we’ve had the luxury of getting a little complacent. We’ve come to the end of that road.”
It’s a road Flynn’s walked herself. “I remember in January hearing about this virus and there was uneasy laughter,” she said. “I look back and I was such a smug American: ‘There hasn’t been a pandemic in 100 years, we’ve got this science stuff figured out — it’s not gonna happen, and it’s gonna be OK.’”
Flynn was still making trips from Chicago to L.A. until early March. “I went to hug my editor. He and I had an ongoing joke about what germaphobes we were, always Purell-ing everything,” Flynn said. “I was like, ‘You really think I’ve got the coronavirus? Ha ha. Anyways, I’ll see you next week.’ Two weeks later, the country shut down.”
Flynn is a soft-spoken Midwesterner with mischief in her face, and her “properly twisted mind” has Cusack’s admiration, while Wilson loves that such a “warped sense of humor and sense of violence” could come from a showrunner so adored by her cast. “I feel like she’s my fairy godmother,” said Byrd, whom Flynn plucked from her deep-cut favorite “Aliens in America.” Whether killing them with kindness or just flat-out killing them, the “Sharp Objects” writer’s striking brand of homegrown viciousness is especially well-suited to the moment.
Observing a cultural disease from the inside out, Flynn’s “Utopia” is more frantic than Stephen King or David Lynch’s Americana, where picturesque communities secretly rot and fester. Instead, the writer’s anxious nation matches the unnerving, hexagon-happy hotel that serves as one of the show’s opening locations. “It’s beyond ‘The Shining,’” Flynn grinned on set, before adding that she’d been sleeping in its spooky rooms during production.
The predictability of America’s particular cultural deficiencies isn’t exactly comforting, but for a country that’s spent 2020 seeing tragedy stack upon tragedy, the incisive anger and central hope of “Utopia” may be one of the year’s most relatable TV experiences. When asked if audiences are going to feel better or worse after they watch “Utopia,” Flynn asked a question as relatable as her show: “Can you just write ‘She had nervous laughter?’”
Like the rest of the country, she had nervous laughter.
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Anytime, starting Friday