The Guardian • Issue #2059

TV/Streaming review


  • by FJK
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2059

Communists have a hard time with the word “utopia.” We are often derided as “utopian” by people who dislike communism but don’t think about it much. One of the first things you learn reading classic communist texts like The Communist Manifesto is that communists are very much not utopian socialists. Those soft-headed types who think that if they just announce their great ideas for how good human society could be, the world will make it happen without any need for class struggle. By the time Engels wrote Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the utopian socialists had been doing this for some time with no success, but they are still with us now.

People in general are suspicious of utopias, so tv shows using the title tend to be negative. If you don’t mind a lot of darkness and violence, and do like good techno music, check out the 2013 British thriller, Utopia, in which plucky underdogs fight a eugenicist conspiracy to make the world perfect by sterilising 19 out of every 20 people on earth.

The ABC comedy series Utopia, launched in 2014, was always a kind of Australian “Yes Minister.” This reference dates me badly, but Yes Minister and the follow-up, Yes Prime Minister, are absolute comedy classics which stand the test of time. Utopia, in which Rob Sitch is running an infrastructure department that can’t get anything done, is okay-funny. Overall, it’s a mug of warm Milo – nice but not thrilling.

The opening moments of the new Utopia really take me back. We see a bunch of futuristic graphics and hear people saying “nation-building” a lot. We also hear the current Prime Minister say it. It seems like an eternity ago that Tony Abbott was announcing that he wanted to be “the infrastructure Prime Minister.” There has been a decade of bad prime ministering since then – not just amusingly incompetent, but actually lethal.

Still, here we are in 2023, and some things are always funny. Like the gap between what politicians promise and what they mean to deliver, and how they wiggle out of commitments, right? Utopia has a crack at that with Lehmo, the new PM’s political fixer, doing the amusing wiggling.

Less hilarious is the first episode’s other focus, respect classes. “It’s just one hour,” Rob Sitch’s oppressed boss says with relief. “That’s right, just one hour a day for this week.”

This is meant to be hilarious because everyone knows how to respect their fellow workers, so we don’t need some patronising instructor to give us classes on it, right? Classes that office workers are made to sit through, can definitely be annoying, and patronising. It’s understandable that workers who try to get on with everyone and do the right thing could feel affronted at the idea they need a class on their behaviour, but middle-class Australians are told that they don’t need to change a thing about their behaviour often enough without Utopia adding to it.

On the casual racism front, the bossy respect class instructor perpetrates some on a staff member by repeatedly asking them where they’re from, and not being happy with being told “accounts,” or “Mitcham.” It’s kind of funny because she’s doing what she’s supposed to be teaching the staff not to do.

The show also tries to satirise workplace harassment. The hunky new guy in the office wants to flirt with nice Celia Pacquola, who’s interested, but a fellow worker who takes the Respect class too seriously keeps interrupting their fun flirting. It’s meant to be funny because he’s taking respect too seriously. At this point, the makers of Utopia should go to youtube and look up “Are we the baddies?” Women still face workplace harassment at high levels. Non-anglo Australians face immense amounts of casual racism. I’m fine with satirising boring workplace training, but Utopia verges on making fun of a worker’s right to get through the day without casual racism or harassment.

ABC and ABC iview

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