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TV Review: ‘Utopia Falls’ Short of Expectations

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Utopia Falls -- "The World Is Yours" - Episode 101 -- In the last living colony on Earth, New Babyl, Aliyah, a candidate in the state’s Exemplar entertainment competition, stumbles upon a discovery known as The Archive, a find that will change her world forever. Aliyah (Robyn Alomar), Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz), Apollo (Phillip Lewitski) and Brooklyn (Humberly González), shown. (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/Hulu)

Not all ingredients mix well together. Anchovies don’t pair well with chocolate. You wouldn’t put vinegar in your coffee. Blending sci-fi, YA drama, and hip hop musical make for a similarly unpleasant mix. “Utopia Falls” combines so many disparate elements together to diminishing results. The sci-fi plot machinations undermine the more fun musical elements of the show. Meanwhile, the YA drama only further dulls the themes the show is looking to explore within the genres of sci-fi and musicals. Every new element fights against what the show is already doing, rather than complementing it. Overall, it’s just an epic slog to get through.

“Utopia Falls” takes place far in the future in the domed community of New Babyl. After retreating underground after The Great Flash, humanity re-emerged to set up a perfect new society, divided into different factions – Nature, Progress, Industry, and Reform. The factions are ruled by the Authority, a totalitarian entity that can’t possibly be up to anything evil or bad. Every further bit of world building detail makes “Utopia Falls” appear more derivative and unimaginative. Elements feel ripped specifically from “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” series. Bargain basement production values only further underline how cheap and unimaginative New Babyl is.

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Utopia Falls — “Run This Town” – Episode 104 — Aliyah and her friends look towards hip-hop for inspiration for the upcoming Exemplar group round, while in The Archive, Tempo uncovers humanity’s forgotten dark history. Mags (Mickeey Nguyen), Bohdi (Akiel Julien), Aliyah (Robyn Alomar), Sage (Devyn Nekoda) and Brooklyn (Humberly González), shown. (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/Hulu)

Enough about the world: what’s the show about? Apparently this new, advanced utopia is held together in harmony only through an annual “American’s Got Talent”-esque talent show called the Exemplar. Our protagonist, Aliyah (Robyn Alomar), enters the Exemplar with her wannabe boyfriend, Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz). However, her attentions turn quickly to Bodhi (Akiel Julien), a fellow competitor who comes from the Reform sector, the lowest class in New Babyl. On their first night in the Exemplar, Aliyah and Bodhi sneak out to go to a party. Instead, they end up stumbling upon a bunker that houses a catalog of the entire world’s music, including hip-hop. It turns out, all music was destroyed and kept in this bunker, called the Archive (voiced by Snoop Dogg), to keep the peace.

Filled with knowledge and love for hip-hop, Aliyah and Bodhi are eager to share their discovery with the rest of the Exemplar competitors. They even incorporate some of their new music knowledge into their Exemplar performances. Unfortunately, this draws the ire of Authority Phydra (Kate Drummond), who believes that music will lead to the dissolution of their perfect society. The basic concept of “Divergent” meets “Footloose” should be more fun than this. However, “Utopia Falls” embraces earnestness and self-seriousness. All this means is that one feels bad for not enjoying the show. Yet, there’s no bit of fun to be had throughout the show’s ten episode run.

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Utopia Falls — “Can I Kick It” – Episode 102 — Aliyah discovers a connection between The Archive and her late mother while an impromptu performance tests the patience of those in power. Aliyah (Robyn Alomar) and Bohdi (Akiel Julien), shown. (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/Hulu)

Though heavy-handed, “Utopia Falls” does explore some interesting themes. While Aliyah enjoys hip-hop upon discovering it, the music truly speaks to Bodhi. He expresses to Aliyah how he feels connected to the music in a deeper way. It speaks to his plight as a marginalized member of the Reform sector. Music is a powerful form of expression, and hip-hop has long been a vehicle for African Americans to have their voice amplified in pop culture. Music can be entertainment for some, but an important reflection of race, class and adversity for others. Rather than explore these themes, “Utopia Falls” merely spouts their key points and moves on to other well-choreographed but hollow dance sequences.

The only thing more on-the-nose than the writing is the actors’ delivery of said tired dialogue. Everyone approaches each scene with gusto, particularly Julien. Yet, they mistake delivering lines loudly with delivering them with passion and meaning. Expositional beats are shouted from the rooftops. Rules of the world are sped through without a shred of character. The cast feels more comfortable dancing than delivering lines. However, when the lines are this bad, it’s easy to see why.

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Utopia Falls — “Run This Town” – Episode 104 — Aliyah and her friends look towards hip-hop for inspiration for the upcoming Exemplar group round, while in The Archive, Tempo uncovers humanity’s forgotten dark history. Gerald (Jeff Teravainen), Gran Chyra (Diane Johnstone), Chancellor Diara (Alexandra Castillo) and Authority Phydra (Kate Drummond), shown. (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/Hulu)

One wants to love original programming. So many movies and TV shows out today are overly reliant on IP. However, critics shouldn’t grade on a curve to favor original programming. When shows are as bad as “Utopia Falls,” it makes one long for the bland remake. There’s a good heart and some strong ideas behind “Utopia Falls,” but they’re all drowned out by poor direction, even worse writing, and an unimaginative world.

“Utopia Falls” is currently streaming on Hulu.

GRADE: (★)

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Written by Christopher James

Christopher James has been an Oscar obsessive ever since watching his first ceremony at age 5 when "Titanic" won Best Picture. He is a recent graduate from Loyola Marymount University with degrees in Screenwriting for Film and Television and Marketing. Christopher currently works in media strategy and planning at Liquid Advertising, based out of Los Angeles, CA. You can find Christopher running on the sunny beach, brunching at trendy restaurants or mostly just sitting in a dark room watching movies and TV in sweatpants. Follow me on Twitter @cwj92movieman


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