“Utopia” has another standout: a worthwhile role from John Cusack, giving one of his best performances in a long while. Playing a role practically suited for his more gentle, whispery presence that some storytellers can render monotone, Cusack is compelling as the mega-rich innovator Dr. Kevin Christie, who runs his shady biochemical business like a big family. His story—which I can’t get into—does bring out the bigger problems of “Utopia,” in that it’s so sprawling that it’s hard to keep track of who knows what when, but Cusack provides a unique depiction of power. You’re not entirely sure you believe his endgame, but you do believe how his paternal approach would be so powerful across many lives, without registering as overtly sinister. When he asks everyone, “What have you done today to earn your place in this crowded world?”, you believe he’s genuinely interested in the answer.
A massive show like this relies on its plotting, and “Utopia” splits the difference: it’s so meticulous and also so obvious when it does force some information, or leans into a coincidence to keep the story going. But true to Christie’s question that he asks the people he lords over—everyone here has a clear purpose, and once the stakes of the series move beyond securing a comic book, “Utopia” gets a special kick in watching these pieces converge. By no coincidence, the conspiracies enflame when Rainn Wilson’s virologist character, Dr. Michael Stearns, enters the picture thinking that he can help cure a virus that has put entire schools of dying children into quarantine.
From the very beginning, “Utopia” tries to create momentum from its twists. It’s a matter more of whether they’re effective, and at the beginning, they feel more desperate than overtly clever. Even more than with its editing or cinematography, its twisty nature becomes a memorable style itself. And like how style can function in filmmaking, the surprises are flashy enough to cover up that this story isn’t saying much about what it’s representing, that each time it goes deeper into its conspiracy, it’s saying little about modern times except “Yeah, but what if?”. The busy madness in “Utopia” is practically its own brand.