For the 2014–2015 TV season, FOX has created a reality show to end all reality shows: Utopia. Its premise? Fifteen strangers marooned in the wilderness (in Santa Clarita, California) zero infrastructure or resources, tasked with creating a society from scratch—on film. The catch? They’re all so different! A 24/7 online livestream of Utopia begins this Friday, August 29, and the edited program will air on FOX beginning September 7. Termed a “social experiment,” Utopia is unlike any other reality show—except it’s sort of every post-Survivor reality show rolled into one, plus nation-building.
Among the fifteen world creators, there’s the self-described “patriot” (read: nationalist gun nut); the vapid vet tech; the white (with aspirated ‘h’) southern preacher; the polyamorist; the vain, possibly Mormon carpenter; the Seattle woman carrying a Utopian anchor baby; the manchild Manhattan lawyer; the ex-con; the prepper MILF in Daisy Dukes; the skater; the yogi MD; the ex-military personal trainer chef double entrepreneur; the Amazonian archer; the raw vegan; and, because what reality show would be complete without one, the self-professed “backwoods hillbilly.” What a bunch!
As with every surveillance-based reality show, the creators have taken care to sift out anyone with a scrap of self-awareness or even barely-regulated id. As with every utopia, it is doomed to failure. And in reality television, this is precisely the point. Even the Utopia website admits this, asking with a knowing grin, “What could go wrong—besides everything?”
Highly designed failure—from The Bachelor to The Bachelorette—is the acknowledged goal of reality TV, even when it comes disguised as drama. Utopia’s orchestrated maelstrom is on a far grander scale: Society Itself! Leap-frogging over the success of the Dutch show of the same title and premise (and from the same creator, John De Mol), Utopia questions modern society by proposing to remake it from scratch and see how things shake out. Will Utopians be capitalists or communists? Monogamous or polyamorous? Without any preexisting structure, will Utopia the micronation descend into chaos or rise from it, into a matriarchal commune that worships trees?
It seems reasonable to look askance at the idea that society might be radically reimagined by fifteen people chosen for their fundamental dissimilarity—ahem, diversity of usefulness—but then probably nobody actually believes it will. Anyway, people shouting about invented points of conflict makes for better TV than social anthropology. Even De Mol acknowledges, in a trailer, “The ultimate goal is to make great television.”
The other hole in Utopia’s “What Is Society?” quest is the fact that every month Utopians can vote one person out of Utopia, to be replaced by another citizen—a “Newtopian,” not joking. In the context of Utopia, the handcrafted micronation cut off from the rest of the world (but for the cameras), this is tantamount to a majority-vote execution. Anyone problematic to the vision or function or mandatory raw vegan diet of Utopia can become an unperson by a show of hands. Meanwhile, auditions for Newtopians are ongoing, and filled with the sort of people who want to be on a reality TV show—more or less the opposite of a functioning society, much less a better one.
So maybe Utopia knows its true aims are dystopian as well as the The Bachelor bachelor knows he’s only in it to have sex with blindly hopeful women who hate each other. With 24-hour livestream footage available online for the entirety of the show’s run, slated to be a year, a run-of-the-mill TV binge could easily turn into a breakneck, life-ruining bender. It’s like 24 Hours of “Happy” for Potemkin statecraft.
Reality television typically asks one of two questions: “Can you believe this shit?” or “What if [fill in the blank]?” The latter variety asks the first question as an immediate follow-up. Utopia is sure to be entertaining, and a huge, shouting clusterfuck. This is to be expected—indeed, planned!—and if things go well, Utopia may run for years. Dysfunction beats ufunction every time.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.