Let’s be frank: watching Utopia hurts. It involves stinging your eyeballs, tearing your hair, and taking yourself to the ledge of a skyscraper to call the whole thing off. The fact that the characters are meant to be faux pleasing is no excuse not to loathe them.
This Australian satire on bureaucracy, specifically featuring the bureaucracy of infrastructure development, displays buffoonery, stupidity, and workplace retardation of hideous scale. It is a micro snapshot of the public service and its poisonous symbiosis with the political class, an insight into virtually any modern organisation in retreat from its principles. In it, we see the same recipe repeated across government departments, corporations, the modern failed university, and its managers.
From 2014, Utopia had two focal points: infrastructure projects of the National Building Authority, and the employees who, in various ways, advance, retreat, and then diminish the allocated task. Ideas struggle to be born. In their infancy, smothering is a must. If such ideas eventually develop legs, they will be shackled and bound.
How this is manifested varies. It could come in the form of a feasibility study. The outcome of that feasibility study is bound to lead to other studies, and so forth, suggesting a law of false productivity. If changes do take place, they never progress beyond tinkering with fences or redesigning logos. The rest is just enactment and illusion. The projects that do eventually get realised in all their horror are the cockups, the bungles, the budget nightmares.
The office dimension is salient in Utopia, a universe where kindly failure is celebrated. It is the site of constipated endeavours, where the only possible momentum takes place via catering choices and the watercooler. Where work is not actually done (there is a preference for work about work), and progress painfully slow, distractions in language and communications offer solace and salvation. Human Resource freaks take centre stage and parade; legal advisors intervene and meddle in priestly instruction. There is a focus on professional development, a spotlight on diet, protocols of behaviour.
There is, however, a conscious departure in the series from brute workplace aggression and manic bullying in the manner of The Thick of It. It is precisely this recipe that gives Utopia its self-harming appeal. You are meant to find the characters amiable, even mildly likable. Banish the thought.
Rob Sitch, the director of the series who also plays the frustrated Tony Woodford, head of the NBA, puts it like this: “Utopia came along at a time when the idea of someone yelling at people in the workplace went out years ago. So, it is all these quiet, passive-aggressive frustrations where you have got to negotiate telling people off and try to get the best out of people without actually offending anyone, especially if they are acting in good faith.”
After four seasons, the well should have run dry, with those amiable darlings vanishing in a devastating Australian drought. But fecundity has returned, and the landscape abloom with flourishing feeds. Typically, the inspiration for the 2023 series comes from inauspicious, even banal origins. Sitch had something of a revelation when stuck in roadworks on a city freeway. “I reckon I had been driving up and down the freeway for four years through those roadworks. I turned to someone in the car and said, this looks like it hasn’t changed. When are they going to finish it?”
What grates with such an otherwise superb effort – it’s not every day you can loathe the affable so easily – is its cosmic immutability, a state of affairs assisted by the characters. Utopia is a horrific concession to such a reality, revels in it, and does so with that Australian “she’ll be right mate” disposition that can only cause despair. Instead of brave reform and dynamic movement, there is hemmed in status quo cowardice, a cementing stasis. To repurpose the language of the Australian historian Manning Clark, this is not the language of the enlargers but the straightening types. It would probably be kinder to call them the straitjacketing types with thick folders of neuroses.
It is for such reasons that the sane thinker should disagree with the following assessment in The Australian by Troy Bramston. “It is not possible to dislike any of the characters because they are all so affable and they mean well, whether it is human resources manager Beverley Sadler (Rebecca Massey) warning of legal pitfalls dealing with the staff or Brian Collins (Jamie Robertson), responsible for security and building services, updating office equipment and making sure everyone is wearing a lanyard.”
Utopia builds on a substantial record from Working Dog, whose credits include Frontline and the The Hollowmen. It also strikes a similar note to The Games, which premiered in 1998 and lasted two seasons. Ironically enough, that remarkable effort prophesied catastrophe and failure at the Sydney Olympic Games, or at least a rather impoverished show. Nothing of the sort happened, and, most unusually, the games were budgeted and paid for ahead of the event. Oddly enough, the characters in John Clarke’s brilliant creation, showing the irreducible power of absurdity and image when bureaucracies and stage-managing meet, are rather likeable.
Utopia is of that tradition, though it should come with a health warning for those damaged and ruined by the innumerable workspaces and agencies that operate with the cul-de-sac in mind, prizing the polite delivery of inanities over hard substance. Many of the characters to be found in such carceral spaces are distinctly not affable and deserve to be given a generous lashing of opprobrium.