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The Final Days of Utopia: Why Reality TV’s “Biggest Failure” Had the Cord Cut Too Soon

The Final Days of Utopia: Why Reality TV’s “Biggest Failure” Had the Cord Cut Too Soon:

“It’s always a full moon in Utopia,” Jon Kroll says with a laugh. He’s taken me to the top of a mountain, the highest peak on the set of the Fox Reality TV show Utopia he executive produces. It’s here that a giant, fake moon is housed, casting enough light across Utopia’s three-acre ranch to ensure nighttime footage doesn’t look like garbage. But special effects can only hide so much: unbeknownst to Kroll and myself when I visited on Day 50 of the show in October, two weeks later, the moon would set forever over Utopia.

Despite a reported $50-million budget and hype that the show would revolutionize reality TV with its 24/7 surveillance component, Utopia stumbled from the start. The stereotypical casting of the 15 participants—representing different backgrounds and political ideologies, asked to make decisions together—irked critics and viewers. Broadcast ratings sagged immediately after the show’s August premier, and the show’s airings were cut from twice-a-week to once on Fridays. Then, more than a week ago, the inevitable happened: Utopia was canceled.

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the view from Utopia

I’m one of the few people who cares. The longer the show aired, the deeper I was hooked. I found the show challenging, demanding, and erratic: it left it open to viewers how they should experience the project: online versus broadcast or even in person at open houses or in online chatrooms with characters. It had all the requisite drama of any scripted or unscripted shows I’ve seen thrive. There were hookups and breakups, empty threats, polyamorous beekeepers, petty backstabbings over food (modern man’s Original Sin), drunken arguments, a live cow-birth, Libertarian Rob’s wedding, weirdo groupies, acoustic guitar jams, non-sexualized nudity, sexualized nudity, Aaron and Kristen’s alliance, Hillbilly Red’s toothless swagger, and lots and lots of yoga. All boxes seemed checked.

Like the concept of utopia itself (the word comes from the Greek root for “nowhere”) the show Utopia is considered a huge failure—but why? Did we just abort a unique idea that could have opened the door to a more interesting world of network TV?

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Sitting in Kroll’s office—yards away from the surveillance war-room, where all the high tech shit comes together—it’s decidedly calm for a 24-hour operation that has as many logistic complexities as it has narrative ambitions. The crew seemed alert and optimistic, even if there was a dying elephant in the room. One guy from production interrupts and asks if Utopian Cal is allowed to reference the fact that he took part in a trial run of the show (common in reality) that never went to air. Kroll says it’s fine, because it’s true, even though the producers try to limit the amount of fourth-wall-breaking and the cast talking about the fact that they are on a show. Kroll quickly returns to the subject at hand, as if his entire day is spent answering questions like that.

"Ratings have to do with the fact this is an odd show and unlike anything that people are used to. It’s a soap opera on a network, which you don’t see in an unscripted form,” says Kroll. It’s unfamiliar, and for networks, that’s difficult to market.

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Cast members relax by a waterfall.

Kroll has been the most vocal, especially online, of the show’s producers. They’ve had to endure a barrage of criticism from all angles, plenty of which comes from the shows most ardent viewers, referencing how certain online viewtopians absolutely abhor how certain cast members (Mike, Aaron, Kristen, and Rob) seem to get away with stealing and lying and don’t get caught by their peers.

“Some people cannot be mollified,” he says about the viewers. “They want blood.”

So the producers gave the viewers more power to vote “bad” Utopians off the show in the final weeks. But that was too little, too late to make any dramatic ratings turnarounds. So is the fact that there isn’t one specific message, concept, or goal of Utopia. For me, that was the hook. For many, that was the problem. I was happy to have my own personal political and socio-economic interpretations, but my reading isn’t finite. There is no singular goal for its characters to obtain, and there’s no rule for how to experience it, even now, post facto. That’s what I found revolutionary more than anything.

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Utopia could have ultimately suffered because, as viewers, we aren’t ready. It’s reminiscent of ‘90s Dot Com millionaire and misguided visionary Josh “The Greatest Internet Pioneer You’ve Never Heard Of” Harris (chronicled in the frightening documentary We Live in Public) known for his forays into super early web TV (anyone remember Pseudo.com?) and social experiments like Quiet (a 24-hour, live surveillance project in an underground basement in 1999 Manhattan) or the time he broadcast a live stream of his apartment and relationship for six months. Harris was constantly predicting or pioneering technology and social behavior, but sometimes being early on an idea was a kiss of death for many of his ideas. And maybe that’s what happened here, too. Like Icarus, Utopia attempted to do a lot and failed, only instead of going to close to the sun, it’s too close to the fake moon.

On top of that perch, overlooking Utopia, I wonder what the space will be used for next, if urban explorers will come to pick at its skeleton and document the demise. How long until the inevitable? Until someone picks up this idea and tries again? Until then, at least for a small slice of us, Utopia —“failure” or not—will be missed.

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