Utopia, Lost in Vegas, and More!

A woman holds a gun to a man's head in Utopia

Welcome to What’s the Buzz, where members of our staff provide you with recommendations on a weekly basis. This week, Caemeron Crain is down the rabbit hole with Lost in Vegas, John Bernardy is listening to the podcast Toasted Cake, and Vincent Greene recommends Utopia and Grimm.

Utopia (2013-2014): An Intelligent, Dark, Brilliantly British Brain-Burner

Vincent: Utopia is a British black-comedy/conspiracy thriller that aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom for two seasons. The show was created by Dennis Kelly and starred Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Adeel Akhtar, Paul Higgins, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alexandra Roach, Oliver Woollford, Alistair Petrie and Neil Maskell. Back in 2014 HBO went about obtaining the rights to make an American version but due to budgetary disputes, it would not come to fruition. Instead, Amazon would go on to acquire the rights four years later in 2018 with production slated to begin the following year in 2019.

The plot mainly focuses on a graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments, written by a man named Philip Carvel. The text supposedly predicted some disastrous viral outbreaks—diseases such as BSE, otherwise known as The Mad Cow’s disease. What was believed to be a variant of the Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. For years after its release, a rumor about the existence of an unpublished sequel to the seemingly clairvoyant comic would do the rounds amongst the online conspiracy theory forums.

This sequel is believed to contain even more important information that could prevent further catastrophes. Five people from one of the online forums that focus on The Utopia Experiments decide to meet in real-life to share in their fandom and discuss the validity of the murmurings about the secret manuscript. Only three of the five actually make it to the meeting: a post-graduate student named Becky (Alexandra Roach), an I.T consultant by the name of Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and the other a man known as Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar).

After the group meets up things turn sour quickly and everything gets out of hand in the most monumental of ways. They soon find themselves on the run from a pair of ruthless hitmen and at the center of a vast conspiracy with an organization known only as The Network at its core. The hitmen in question go by the names of Arby (Neil Haskell) and Lee (Paul Ready), they kill man, woman, and child alike, with nothing but one question for their soon to be victims. That question being, “Where is Jessica Hyde?” As they get closer and closer to our group of heroes there is a knock on the door and we are introduced to Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy).

Jessica goes about quickly teaching the group how to stay hidden from their pursuers. Jessica then goes in search of the manuscript with one of the members of the group who did not make the original rendezvous, an 11-year-old by the name of Grant (Oliver Woollford). The young adolescent gained entry into the group by masquerading as a man in his mid 20s in their chat forum. The unlikely duo manages to get their hands on the manuscript and they and the rest of the group go on the hunt for information about a secret project called Janus and a man by the name of Mr. Rabbit, the mysterious figurehead of The Network.

Whilst our group of heroes seek the truth and look to evade their would-be assassins another story is unfolding. That other story is centered around civil servant Michael Dugdale (Paul Higgins), who finds himself in the middle of a blackmail plot. The blackmailers are using their leverage against Digdale to push through a bill on the Russian Flu, which is a huge focal point of Utopia and in today’s current climate really plays on your mind. As the storylines begin to converge we see how smart the creator of Utopia really is. He pieces every little thing together seamlessly. The narrative of Utopia takes the audience in directions that you didn’t envisage were even on the horizon, Kelly should be commended for how expertly he crafted this show.

Utopia asks a lot of extremely interesting and deep questions, it is stylish, intelligent and backed by a near hypnotic techno soundtrack. Its strengths lie in its pacing and its efficiency in how it does its storytelling. It is a sharp series that keeps you on your toes throughout, never giving you a second of comfort. The use of extremely dark humor to break up the heavy story content is very well done. The cast is perfect in their roles and brings their characters to life with incredible believability. They are real, flawed people that have stumbled on to something that they are totally ill-equipped to deal with.

Speaking of the strength of characters that Utopia has the standout has to be Neil Maskell as Arby, the cold, tormented assassin, who slowly begins to unravel as he becomes haunted by his past acts. Maskell puts in an incredible performance, his delivery of dialogue is mesmerizing, his arc is definitely one of if not the best of the shows short run. You hang on every word of the scenes he is in, especially the scenes he shares with Paul Ready as his hitman partner Lee. The two men have great chemistry and it is clear for all to see when they share the screen.

Even with all of these qualities, Utopia was canceled after only two seasons, which is a shame. It is unfortunate that it never got a chance to finish up in a satisfactory way because it really was on a very high level narratively when it bowed out. Albeit its run was a short one, it was an undoubtedly strong one. It really is a case of quality over quantity. There is not a bad episode in the dozen.

Utopia broaches very sensitive content matter but does it with remarkable nuance and subtly. It is a show with an extremely high I.Q. I for one am looking forward to seeing what shape Amazon’s iteration takes on. I hope it does not veer too much from the British version but also manages to be uniquely original in its own right. The streaming giant has proven now that it is a safe pair of hands and continues to put out original content of a very high standard.

Although I would have loved to have seen the original iteration get the climax it deserved I feel comfortable in the knowledge that the future looks bright for this compelling story, whether it be a slightly different version that what might have been. Hopefully, now the fans of this show, which I count myself one of, will get the culmination to this story that we crave so badly.

Lost in Vegas

Caemeron: Lost in Vegas is a YouTube channel where two self-described hip-hop guys—George and Ryan—listen to metal. Or, well, that’s overly simple. They also listen to things we might better categorize as hard rock, or alternative, and they haven’t given up on their hip-hop roots (even if that isn’t what I tend to listen to from them).

You can find various “person listens to iconic song x for the first time” videos out there, but Lost in Vegas is distinctive in its approach. Sometimes Ryan and George have heard the song before, though often they haven’t. Either way, they’re interested not just in reacting, but in analyzing whatever song is on offer—including its lyrics.

So while it is a joy to see them discover things for the first time, Lost in Vegas also shines in the way that George and Ryan break down the aspects of the songs they listen to. They don’t just tell you that they like something or don’t—they do their best to tell you why.

That being said, some of my favorite moments are when one of them shouts out, “Fire!” or “Playlist!” as they listen to a song that I have loved for decades. Frankly, every time Ryan hollers “Golly!” my heart just melts a little. It’s such a weirdly old-timey and yet heartfelt reaction on his part. And I love seeing these guys bang their heads along to some of these tracks. There is something really fun about seeing someone come to love something that you do, and I think we all know this. It’s like making your friend watch Twin Peaks, or whatever your favorite TV show might be, and feeding off of their reaction.

Of course, George and Ryan don’t love everything. They’re “freethinkers” as they’d say. But that is refreshing, too. Even if they don’t like something that I do, they offer reasons, and those reasons are interesting to think about.

If I have one complaint about Lost in Vegas, it’s a small one. Sometimes I feel like they could have maybe done a little bit more research about this or that on their own, rather than asking people to let them know in the comments. But then, they seem to have a pretty great community to help them out there. Maybe if they looked into things more it would taint their unbiased reactions? I’m not sure.

Regardless, though I discovered Lost in Vegas a bit ago, I’ve found myself returning to them in these trying times. If you haven’t checked them out at all, and are anything like me, there is a rabbit hole here you can fall down for hours. I actually kind of wish I hadn’t seen so much already, because this strikes me as the perfect distraction right now.

But I’ve still managed to spend some hours the past few nights with Lost in Vegas, going to things that didn’t stand out to me before, or going again to some standout favorites. These guys love Tool (as they should), and their reaction to Megadeth’s “Holy Wars” is awesome.

Lately, they have been exploring Black Sabbath, and golly! I don’t know why I love to watch them love Sabbath so much, but I do.

Grimm: Dark, Gritty, Cop Procedural with a Fantasy Twist

Vincent: Grimm is an American fantasy/procedural that aired on NBC for six seasons. It was created by Stephen Carpenter, Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt. Grimm stars David Giuntoli as the lead. It also stars Russell Hornsby, Bitsie Tulloch, Silas Weir Mitchell, Sasha Roiz, Reggie Lee, Bree Turner, and Claire Coffee in supporting roles. Grimm was initially developed for CBS but was put on hold due to the writers’ strike and was later picked up in 2011 by NBC.

The series is mostly centers around the exploits of a Portland detective named Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) who has just discovered that he comes from a long line of monster hunters known as Grimm. These hunters are the thin line that maintains the balance between humanity and creatures that we believed only lived in our myths. Just like Nick, we too find out very quickly that these creatures may not be so mythical after all.

Not only does Nick discover his newfound lineage but he also happens upon a world that exists just beneath the surface of our own. That world is inhabited by Wesen. For all intents and purposes the Wesen look just like you or me but they hide a more animalistic side, only showing this side under moments of emotional distress. It is only the Grimm that has the ability to see them even when they try to hide their transformation known as the woge.

Although Grimm initially finds its inspiration in German folklore and fairytales, it branches out as the story expands, taking in myths from cultures from all around the world. It also cleverly hides smart, subtle social commentary under the guise of just more monster stories. It takes on some very brave subject matter such as domestic violence, racial inequality, white supremacy and much more. It is a show with many layers: it has action, fantasy, horror, nuanced social undertones all wrapped up in a cop procedural with a twist.

When you view Grimm you will clearly see how it is steeped in the worlds of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. David Greenwalt’s work on both of those shows clearly influenced the style and tone of Grimm. Just like those two cult classics, Grimm is a dark and sometimes gory show but it is not without its moments of humor. The jokes are brilliantly timed and used correctly, they help brighten up the show without ever taking away from its overall seriousness too much.

As Grimm progresses it also expands, not just on its mythos but also on how it uses its supporting cast. Each member of the extended cast is given far more meat to their roles as the show moves on, and every one of them excels as they take on their greater narrative workload. I love it when a show promotes from within instead of just adding a whole bunch of new characters that were never necessary to begin with. This is another trait that Grimm shares with both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

That aforementioned expansion of Grimm uncovers a very original and magnificently monstrous world. The special effects used to bring these monsters to life are very well done, the woge transformation is seamless and the actors cast in the roles are always so believable as the creatures they morph into. All of these elements give Grimm a level of realism that many other shows that share this space lack. It never ventures in the realm of being cartoonish and the creators have to be commended for the effort they put in on this side of things.

When fantasy is rooted in reality then it becomes more real; it also becomes more frightening. It gives you pause, what would it be like if there were some hidden species that live amongst us. What if our imaginations of monsters and legends were because they were real at one time and still may lurk there in the shadows just out of sight. Grimm does an excellent job of bringing life to these mythical creatures but it also shows you that what we see on the surface is not always the true core of what lies beneath, whether that be bad or good. The evidence for the duality of man has never been so clear.

Grimm is an excellent show that deserves a bit more light shining on it. The pacing is fast, the storylines are sharp and immersive. The actors are perfectly cast and the writing is smart, subtle and filled with self-awareness. It is delightfully dark and brilliantly original. It is a homage to what came before whilst remaining entirely singular. Grimm is solid from pillar to post—it is a fantastical frightening world just waiting to be explored.

Toasted Cake Podcast

John: Toasted Cake host Tina Connelly is a published author, and host of Escape Pod, a short story podcast from Escape Artists, but Toasted Cake is an audio podcast all her own. It presents a piece of flash fiction from any number of authors, followed by commentary by Connelly about why she chose the writing she just read. All told, most podcasts weigh in at 15 minutes or less. Like its name, it’s meant to be a pleasant snack for our ears and minds.

This week’s offering—“Emergency Scenarios,” by Kelly Sandoval—worked particularly well. Connelly reads it in her trademark pleasant, easy-to-listen-to and wry style. She tells a science fiction style story of people leaving Mars for Earth, but it’s through the perspective of Tricia, a teenage girl who has feelings for her best friend Jas. Tricia comes off vulnerable rather than melodramatic, and her plan to run through worst case scenarios with her computer Adiana is a nice twist on the internal agonizing we all did back in high school when we were weighing the pros and cons of revealing our feelings to our friends. It was science fiction that was 100% relatable.

After the story ended—with a satisfying twist when you learn Tricia has more help than she thought—Connelly tells us how she’s presenting us with the same kind of relief that she needs during these times. Instead of darker stories, she’s giving us tales where everyone’s trying their best and outcomes will probably turn out all right. None of this comes off as precious. Connelly’s just taking care of her heart. And I think she’s right that hearing happy, hopeful stories will be good for ours too.

Those are our recommendations this week! What are yours? Let us know in the comments!

Written by TV Obsessive

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