Friday, February 14, 2020

Utopia Falls Puts the 'Diss' in 'Dystopia'

By Glenn Garvin - February 14, 2020 at 03:00PM

Utopia Falls. Available now on Hulu.

Imagine, as I suppose you have many times, Footloose set in a Stalinist work camp. Or a Hunger Games in which the weapons are not bows and arrows but manuals of Canadian Choreography for the Big-Butted. Or that you suddenly and unaccountably found yourself with a fatally compelling urge to thrust red-hot pokers into your eyes and ears while praying for a quick descent into the fiery embrace of Hell. This last one, I must dutifully report, is no longer just an amusing fantasy but a genuine likelihood should you decide to watch an episode of Hulu's dizzying post-apocalyptic rap drama (I am pretty sure I'm the first person ever to type that phrase) Utopia Falls.

Why a reputable American entertainment company would buy an atrocity like the Canadian-made Utopia Falls, or why it would have been made in the first place, or why Canada even has a television industry, are all questions that theologians may debate for centuries. Our purpose here is merely to note that bad TV is a transnational phenomenon that transcends all technologies, platforms and business models. None of us are safe from Canadian television.

Utopia Falls is set in a dystopian world blighted by an unspecified technology run-amok (possibly the Roomba Wars). The survivors live in a giant totalitarian compound called New Babyl—in war, the first casualty is spell-checking—with Marxist undertones. (Motto: "For state, for community, for all.") Slogans echo from loudspeakers round the clock, practically everything is in short supply, despite—or, more likely, because of—state-mandated production quotas, and most advanced technology is kept in government hands.

"We are all aware of the dangers of technology when used for personal benefit instead of the common good," says Aliyah (Robyn Alomar, like most of the cast a veteran of Canadian TV), a government flack and daughter of a member of the ruling Tribunal.

She's also about to become one of the 24 contestants in the Exemplar, a national arts competition that sounds a bit like those in The Hunger Games, except that, unfortunately, no one gets killed, not even in a demure Canadian way. The losers just—well, lose. This makes for a rather tepid contest, as does the fact that, in war, the second casualty is singing and dancing talent. The contestants mostly resemble early-round American Idol contenders, except with less talent and a surfeit of high-strung teen angst.

As the Exemplar gets underway, all the contestants get clandestine invitations to a party outside the New Babyl walls, a strictly forbidden area. While there, Aliyah and potential romantic partner Bodhi (Akiel Julien) blunder into a secret underground chamber called the Archive, which is packed with powerful taboo technology like jukeboxes. There's also a collection of ancient and forgotten music, among which the kids discover hip-hop, which of course unsprings their genetic break-dancing skills. You guessed it! Grandmaster Flash, Jay Roc and P. Diddy become the Paul Revere and Thomas Paine of the New Babyl Revolution.

While watching the resulting confrontation with authority, even the most devout hip-hop fan is like to discover a hidden affinity for the Tories. The kids' instantaneous single- and simple-minded devotion to hip-hop and their cultish insistence that it's the apogee of human liberty is gratingly idiotic. (Especially when their supposedly inspirational oratory is littered with Canadian speech pathologies like "aboot.") The platitudes come so thick and fast that the decrees of the totalitarian commissars—among them, that personal expression must be banned because "it fosters disharmony"—start to sound reasonable. "I don't see how singing and dancing could be dangerous!" exclaims one of the kids. Here, let me show you.


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