Monday, 3 November 2014

utopia tv usa

I'd been meaning to write about this subject for a while now, ever since I went to the compound a month ago. Now that Utopia is officially cancelled, I think this story has the ending I'd been waiting for. 

I live in a very reality TV-centric household with my boyfriend. He is a rabid fan of the genre. He watches every spin-off show that you've never heard of and our DVR is full of episodes of obscure, one season reality shows. Most of the time, while he watches these shows at night, I work on my computer or read, half paying attention, only looking up when he lets me know there is something worth watching.

Utopia was different. It was branded as a social experiment. Fifteen strangers, expertly cast to mix like oil and water, were moved onto a tiny lot resembling Frontierland in Canyon Country and left to build their ideal society. Production would be as minimal as possible, intervening only to  allow deliveries and to announce over a loudspeaker that they needed to change the battery packs on their microphones. The cast were filmed not by a crew of cameras and cameramen, but by hundreds of pivoting high definition cameras planted in literally every corner of the compound. Seriously, I scoped it out with the intention of sneaking stuff in for them. Even the bathroom had a camera.

The first episodes (which launched with three in a week) were filled with alcohol-fueled outbursts from the most volatile cast members, turf wars about who's bed went where, and fights about food preferences and which of their personal belongings would be coming with them. It was just a generally chaotic scramble for fifteen people to stake out their identities amidst a tactfully diverse group of adults. But there was something more to it than typical viewer bait on survival shows, and it was even weirder than Big Brother. Utopia had no prize or goal, other than to maintain homeostasis on this small plot of land with this large group of personalities for an entire year. If this project were to succeed, the loose cannons would need to be eliminated and replaced. Luckily, this was a rule built into the show. Once a month the group would vote someone out, get two potential replacements, and pick one of the two. 

One of my favorite aspects of the show though, and probably what lead to its demise, was the lack of structure. I didn't really understand the rules, and I don't think the cast or producers did either. These people were isolated to this piece of land with some skills, but none that far outside my own skill set. It was complete anarchy as far as primetime television goes. There was no way it could end well. 

Speaking of anarchy, they decided they would let one Utopia pioneer choose a form of government for the group each week. First up was anarchy under Hex. Kristen incited capitalism, which caused group morale to plummet. Bella had a matriarchal society, and Mike wrote his own impossible to follow constitution and introduced a court system (which was best utilized in Mayogate.)

The group was given 5,000 dollars to start so they didn't starve to death waiting for a garden that would ultimately never grow. They had to install their own plumbing and electricity, pay their own vet bills for the chickens and pregnant cows that were already there, and pay for the phone bill and wireless internet they eventually installed. With new developments came new rules, most of which seemed to be made up as they went along. The cast only had access to the computer they bought during certain hours of the day and they had to ask for certain sites to be approved to visit. The only reason I know this is because I was briefly in contact with them about setting up a show at Utopia a la Bio Dome. Needless to say lots of red tape kept that from coming to fruition.

Once they moved out of the first stages of survival mode, they needed to come up with ways to make money. They decided to open Utopia to outsiders and host yoga and boot camp classes, as well as something called "The Utopia Experience." Basically you could pay 20 dollars cash to go see the compound and hang out with the cast. I tried to get there for the first Utopia Experience, but I wasn't quick enough. Production replied that it was all full and only yoga was still open. I decided to wait it out til the next Utopia experience. I wanted to learn how to make hillbilly wine with Red!

My friends and I were fortunate enough to make it to Utopia before its demise. Unfortunately, it fell on the day that Red spent in the hospital for a bone infection. We got the tour of Utopia from our favorite Utopians. I got to lay in Rob's bed. I snooped around Red's corner while he was out getting surgery. My boyfriend bartered his sweatshirt with Hex and we all took photo booth pictures with them on their laptop. We made plans to come back and perform comedy and music for them. 

The spirit of Utopia brought out a feeling of community in people that weren't even on the show. Viewers wanted to see the project succeed and wanted to contribute to the experiment any way they could. Production quickly put the kibosh on that. Bartering became against the rules once there was too much outside help, but that outside help was an interesting side effect of the show. Here were 15 strangers trying to create their own Utopia, and people from all over the country wanted to help them get there. I am sitting on my couch writing this as Eloy watches Love and Hip Hop. It's full of insufferable characters treating each other like garbage. Utopia was a cast of characters, some who I found insufferable, but they wanted to be able to work together. They wanted to improve themselves. It was a refreshing thing to see on FOX.

For all the positivity, there was of course heaps of negativity. In one clip, Kristen reads comments that were accidentally enabled on her fashion blog (a Utopian personal business venture during her reign of capitalism). They were full of the typical hateful garbage the internet loves to shovel at anyone in a spotlight. She cried and panicked and walked away from the computer while the rest of the Utopians tried to comfort her. Rob spoke directly to a camera and dared the cowards to come to Utopia and say that shit to their faces. And if you really wanted to, you could. In the first month, some viewers went to the compound and told Utopians about the things that were being said behind their backs by other cast members. That was another rule that came into place later on - no visitors were allowed to talk about the show. That brings me to the live feed.

The show aired twice a week to progressively disappointing ratings, then was pared down to once a week. That didn't even matter though because the real show was on the live streams. Once I found out you could watch the "pioneers" live 24-7, I was lead down a dark Utopihole. Something about that fact that they were located only 28 miles from me fueled my fascination. I watched as they struggled through a brutal heat wave from my own sweltering living room. On the first chilly morning of fall they fired up their wood-burning furnace and huddled around it as I watched from beneath my own cozy blankets and thought "that looks nice." When it was my bed time, they were all about asleep. When they made up silly ways to entertain themselves, I watched with my friends and snacked on the things they would have killed for (Doritos and Sour Patch Kids). If you've ever wished to be a fly on the wall or just plain invisible in a room, this was pretty darn close. You could switch back and forth between camera feeds to hear people talking shit on Camera 1 about the people on Camera 3 who were wasted and singing on the dock. Meanwhile on Camera 4, the sober Utopians would sit on the steps and laugh at the drunks from a distance.

Of course it was too good to be true, and production started muting mics and dropping feeds that were too racy or could get them into legal trouble. As the show progressed and ratings declined, production started intervening more. You'd hear them over the speakers calling offending cast members to the office like they were in school, then the feed would drop. It stopped feeling like you were seeing EVERYTHING and started to feel more like a tailored TV ready version of the show. In the final episode, the cast started speaking directly to the camera in testimonials. You know, the kind of stuff that happens on every other reality show, not in this supposed social experiment.

As time went on you started to watch these people unravel. Not only could you watch the Utopians struggle to get along with each other, you got to watch them struggle with the idea of being on TV. A year is an unfathomable amount of time to live knowing your every move is being watched, not to mention the stress of where your next meal was coming from. Tempers were hot and a strong sense of existentialism swept over them. Nearly every pioneer had lengthy talks about what purpose they served being there. There was really nothing keeping them from walking out the gates. In fact, that's what Bri did a week before the cancellation. 

In two months people coupled up, broke up, and got back together. Some of my favorite moments I caught on the feed were between Utopia couples. Rob and Jess's wedding was the pinnacle of happiness in Utopia. Hex wrote the most touching letter to Taylor to help boost his spirits when he was feeling low. A letter that I got to read because the cameras zoomed in on it as Taylor read it. One night Mike and Dedeker sat on a fence together, talking about what the project meant to them and what they wanted from it. They agreed they didn't think they could last the entire year. They said they'd be happy just to make it to February. I would have been happy to see that too. To see them get on the other side of the slump and have a functioning society. I planned on going back to visit and cheer them on after some time had passed. Instead, the show and their relationship collapsed. Mike got a taste of what being with a polyamorist felt like, and foolishly got into an argument with Dedeker's suitor, Jake the beekeeper. He did not come out the other side of the situation looking great, and conveniently needed to go home for a "family emergency."

The last week fizzled out with three original Utopians leaving and yet another change of rules. In a last ditch effort to boost ratings, production put the voting in the hands of the viewers, not the pioneers themselves. That was the nail in the Utopia coffin. How could anyone form a perfect society with thousands of puppet masters manipulating you?

Utopia was such an expensive failure and I loved every tragic minute of it. It was the first reality show that felt real since the Osbournes. It was both hopeful and hopeless. I felt l was a part of it, and I wish more of America felt that way. I guess a 50 million dollar show about communal living is not as popular as one would hope.

P.S. As I write this, I just got a response from my Facebook message to Rob.
This is why Utopia will always be the best.

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