Hulu is billing Utopia Falls as the first ever sci-fi hip-hop television series, and its easy to see why such a thing hasnt been created before. Sci-fi has been a generally white genre, and one thats more concerned with drama than dancing, singing and rapping. That may sound like were being wiseasses, but nothing could be further from the truth; the idea that a sci-fi show could be made from a younger, more diverse perspective is a welcome change. But is Utopia Falls that show?
Opening Shot: As we see an aerial shot of the clouds over Earth, then we start panning into Earths barren landscape, we hear a voice over go, They say, time is the greatest thief there is.
The Gist: As we pan over, we see that much of the land is uninhabitable. But then we see, under an environmental bubble, the colony known as New Babyl. Its the last operating colony on Earth, established hundreds of years after the ancestors of apocalyptic survivors went underground to live. Its the day when the 25 teens from the colonys various sectors are chosen to train for a musical-dance competition called The Exemplar.
Aliya (Robyn Alomar) is a guide in the Progress Sector and is the daughter of Gerald (Jeff Teravainen), a member of the Tribunal, who advise the Chancellor Diara (Alexandra Castillo), the leader of the colony. Her boyfriend Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz) has also been selected. Over in Reform Sector, essentially a nicer version of a prison colony, best friends Mags (Robbie Graham-Kuntz) and Bohdi (Akiel Julien) are picked; the first time two from that sector are going. Sage (Devyn Nekoda), from the Nature sector, is so sure she wont go she doesnt even watch the announcement.
After the announcement, Diara and the Tribunal find out that there was a breach in the colonys protective bubble, meaning that either someone came in or someone left.
When they students get to the facility where they train for The Exemplar, theyre greeted by Mentor Watts (Huse Madhavji), who tells them that their first performance is in ten minutes. During that time, Bohdi and Aliya get in a tiff over what Bohdi thinks are her obvious advantages. After the performance, Watts takes down the mostly-confident students by saying the performances were average, and immediately kicks out the three worst performers to show the students how serious this is.
Most of the new students are invited to a mysterious party right outside the borders of the colony, which is considered to be off-limits; the invite says anyone who attends will get a leg up on the competition. When Bohdi and Aliya separate from the rest, they find a door in the woods. When they go in, they find something called The Archive (voice of Snoop Dogg) that introduces them to an ancient form of music: hip-hop.
Our Take: Theres a lot of good things about Utopia Falls, created by R.T. Thorne, known for directing series like Find Me In Paris and Blindspot. Both Alomar and Julien are appealing leads (its pretty apparent that theyre the leads of what will be an ensemble), and they both do good work in a first episode that more or less feels like Glee set hundreds of years in the future. The entire ensemble has to be multi-talented, either as dancers, singers, musicians, as well as actors, and it feels like Thorne has found actors that can create believable characters with some depth.
But the story, as with most Sci-fi that is trying to build a new world out of nothing, can get confusing. As much as Thorne tried to give some exposition in the beginning of the episode, it felt like we dont know nearly enough about New Babyls various sectors, what The Exemplar actually is, how some people are related to each other (Sage, for instance, has a Gran Chyra (Diane Johnstone) and Gran Reale, but were not sure if they raised her or are just two of her grandparents). Also, stilted language abounds, like when people are said to be in their 17th year instead of just saying theyre 16. The temptation to jargonize everyday speech to make it sound futuristic has always been a pitfall of sci-fi, but the best of the genre has its characters speaking in contemporary speaking patterns; when Thorne strays from that, it immediately loses us.
We get that this show is likely geared towards a younger audience, but we hope that the idea that the colony may seem like a collective but in reality comes off as a North Korea-esque totalitarian state will be addressed. Everyone vows loyalty to the leaders, and when those leaders call to their charges on massive screens, the show feels less like a teen dancing and singing show and more like 1984. Perhaps as the influence of hip-hop, and much of the genres message to challenge authority, permeates with the students, that topic will come to the foreground.
Sex and Skin: Nothing.
Sleeper Star: We might watch every episode solely to hear Snoop Dogg as the voice of The Archive. If we didnt see his name in the opening credits, hearing his voice would have been one of the most out-of-left field things weve encountered on TV so far in 2020.
Most Pilot-y Line: Moore Times (Dwain Murphy), an influential friend from the Reform Sector, tries to get Bodhi and Mags to give out black market shoes to the students. Bodhi refuses. Hes been like a father to us! Mags says to Bodhi. First of all, you can keep that father talk, Bodhi replies. Whoo boy, lots of history in that sentence.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Were not sure if Utopia Falls is going to get better than the first episode, which we found hokey at times. But well keep watching just to hear more Snoop Dogg, and if the show improves, all the better.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesnt kid himself: hes a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.
StreamUtopia Falls On Hulu
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