So I had the idea that I should watch Fox’s new show “Utopia” so that you don’t have to. I felt like I had some abstract sort of duty to at least give it a try, since what we talk about here at the Atavist Daily could be considered “Utopian” in some ways, and we’re definitely fans of small-scale communal living, as the show basically requires of its ‘pioneers’. 


I made it through the second commercial break. 


And now I never want to have to see, hear, or think about that show again. I love all of our supporters… but I don’t love you enough to watch this show for you.

In case you’ve never heard of it (and I strongly, strongly advise not watching it, even if you’re curious), here’s how the show’s website describes the premise:


“If you could restart the world, what would you do differently?

UTOPIA is searching for candidates to build a whole new world -- just the way you want it!


Behold UTOPIA, a bold new series based on the hit Dutch program. Watch what happens as 14 pioneering Americans wave goodbye to the lives they’ve known, move to a remote location, and set out to create a society from scratch. They’ve got limited supplies, wildly diverse backgrounds, and zero bathrooms.


What could go wrong -- besides everything?


The Utopians will make every decision about how they live and work. Will they choose democracy or dictatorship? Capitalism or socialism? Fidelity or free love? Which religion, if any, will prevail? Will they punish or forgive? Keep or share?”


For one thing, gag me with a spoon. For another… no. Just gag me with a spoon.


Is my negative reaction to this show abnormally strong, you think? After all, it’s just another dumb reality TV show. There are plenty of those, and if one was to get this upset about each and every one of them, one would be setting themselves up for a rather miserable life. But no. This show is a special sort of bad… a dangerously cynical sort of bad. The problem is that this show, by offering up an example of people trying to create a better world and failing because the whole ‘experiment’ has been designed not for success but for TV ratings, makes it easier for credulous viewers to discount any real attempts to change society and assume that the nation-state based capitalism that’s currently dominating the international landscape is the inevitable, or even the best, society that we can hope for. 


And of course Fox, as a multi-national company, has a vested interest in limiting dissent regarding the political and economic system that has served them so well, and a vested interest in pandering to the existent beliefs of their core demographics. The international revolution will not be inspired by Fox, and any claims from them that their programming could inspire any counterculture thoughts are BS.


‘But wait,’ you might say. ‘If the ‘experiment’ on the show is doomed to fail, maybe that does show us something about society?’


It doesn’t. Here are just a few of the reasons:


O, Pioneers!


The ‘pioneers’ present on the compound have been hand-picked not for their ability to contribute to a functioning society, but for their entertainment value to the viewer. Thus, they tend towards simplistic stereotypes: the pastor (more on him later), the gun-nut survivalist, the repentant criminal… and yes, there’s a token polyamorous girl. And she seems pretty smart- I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a great force for good for the project, able to communicate and cooperate well with others, and maybe it'll be a good thing for the polyamorous community. But that’s not why she’s there. She’s there to either hook up with someone and provide the audience with a little vicarious sexual thrill, or to be slut-shamed by the religious pioneers and provide the audience with a little vicarious self-righteous thrill. And maybe both at the same time. 


Yes, Atavists think that lots of very different people with very different personalities can live and thrive together. But not as strangers. A tribe (or, hopefully one day, a Federation) is dependent on the bonds between its members. Those bonds don’t necessarily take a lifetime to create, but they do take time, and the bonds should be present before people are put into a situation of mutual dependence. None of these pioneers has any reason to trust any of the other pioneers, or to believe that any of their peers really has their best interests at heart. 


And probably very few of the pioneers do have each other’s interests in heart. Some of them probably just want to be on TV, to be some sort of famous and get their fifteen minutes. That's bad enough. But then there are those who are there to promote their personal ‘brand’. And I’m not just talking about ditzy Californians who want to be actors or actresses- let’s consider the aforementioned pastor. 


The show’s producers obviously want the pastor front and center, since in the first fifteen minutes they’ve showed him tearfully saying goodbye to his family, showed footage of him preaching to what appears to be an evangelical church, and have given him ‘alone time’ with the camera in order for him to explain why he’s come here: he says he wants to bring God and Jesus back into the national spotlight. Maybe he does. But he also thinks he’s the person to do so, and wants to be America’s next great religious personality. 


But our pastor is not actually concerned for the souls of any non-Christians on the compound. Or, that might be too harsh. He might actually be concerned about their souls. But he’s also concerned with promoting himself, putting himself in the national spotlight. Likewise, I’d be surprised if there’s not a libertarian/tea-party political-theoretician in the group who ultimately wants to make him or herself the next Joe the Plumber or Sarah Palin, and if there’s not a social justice warrior who wants to make him or herself the next Barack Obama. They’re not there because they want to make things work. They’re there because they want a platform. 


A telling detail: a little research shows that one of the restrictions on the pioneers in the contracts they sign with Fox is that they agree that they will not seek political office for a year after leaving the show. The audience might be deceived, but Fox’s producers and lawyers are not: they know that they’re attracting people who want the public spotlight, and they want to keep those people from immediately running for public office in order to obscure that fact from the audience.


So all of these pioneers have their own motivations, and they there’s no real long-term incentive for them to work out their difficulties and form a functioning community. After all, they’ve signed up to spend a year with each other, but after that, or maybe before, if they get voted off (presumably by each other, ‘Survivor’ style), they’re all going their separate ways. The show has to make room for a whole new suite of pioneers to take their place. After all, if, despite the initial arguments, things did settle down into a stable, healthy community, that would be absolutely horrible for ratings. 


The Structure of Cynicism


Even if Fox had picked pioneers whom they actually thought had a chance at getting along and forming a functional society, the structure of the show prevents it. 


For one thing, these people will not be acting and reacting naturally: they will be performing, and for multiple audiences. We all perform for an audience in a community, and that can be good, because it incentivizes us to be on our best behavior; but normally the audience is limited to the other community members. On a reality TV show, there are three audiences: (a) the actual community, who they can’t really trust; (b) the production team, which greatly outnumbers the pioneers (Fox’s website mentions there will be a team of more than 200 crew members on site keeping everything up, and while a lot of the shots appear to be from ‘hidden’ cameras, I’m sure there are cameramen roaming around looking for closeups); and (c) the invisible television audience watching from afar. The function of the television audience is that it gives each of the pioneers the illusion that they’re being watched by an audience who agrees with them. The pastor is acting in front of a Christian audience at home who already agrees with him; the polyamorous girl is acting for her polyamorous friends (probably in California). 


The narrative structure of the show doesn’t do them any favors, either. If we really wanted this bunch of people to get along, we would start with some ice-breakers, followed by some bonding activities. Maybe a high ropes course? (I always liked those...) The point would be to let them get to know each other before they have to make any important decisions. 


But no. 


On what appears to be everyone’s first day at the compound, they’re told that they don’t get to keep all of the stuff they packed for the year (which already had to fit in a pretty limited space, so we can assume that they all think everything they brought is important) into a communal box. This is completely arbitrary – there’s no reason for them to only be able to keep some of their stuff, and it immediately throws them into a panicked, chaotic frenzy. There hasn’t been a chance for a natural leader to emerge and lay some semblance of sanity onto the process, and it’s really just a cauldron for hurting people’s feelings. There’s an argument over whether they need to pack more than one Bible; at least one non-Christian thinks that’s wasted space, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a voting mechanism and the multiple bibles go in. There’s one guy who insists that everything he brought has to go into the communal bucket and throws a hissy fit, and no one knows him well enough to know why, really, or to be able to calm him down so that he can be rational about it. And that’s about when I turned the TV off. 


Not that that was the only artificial, arbitrary conflict that the show’s producers forced on our poor little pioneers. They’re also going to get to pick a new member for the group out of some pre-selected possibilities, which is bound to be contentious, and they’re being given $5000 to spend on whatever they want, which of course they’re not going to agree on at this point. For one thing, they just got there and don’t know what they need.


That last plot point reminds me of certain anthropological studies of chimps, in which the researchers dump a whole boatload of bananas in the forest in order to attract the monkeys over so they can be studied, and then act surprised when the monkeys fight over the bananas. Of course they’re going to fight, if they’re given something to fight over. Normally bananas and other monkey foods are spread out across the jungle and spoil before they can be hoarde. But, if you dump a goldmine of fresh bananas in one spot, whatever chimp wants to be top banana (to use a bad pun) can lay claim to the whole pile and then deal them out to his followers. If you give people, or animals, something to fight about, you can’t use the fact that they do fight about it as evidence of their human (or animal) nature. 


Ugh. Now, after writing all of this, I really really really don’t want to have to watch this show anymore. I’d be happiest if it went off the air tomorrow and never came back.  If any of you do keep up with it against my advice, and want to tell me why I’m wrong about x,y, or z, please do, though. The fact that there’s a market for this show at all shows that there’s a societal interest in remaking things. And treated with respect, the concept could be very interesting. It could make you think. But this? This is MTV’s 'The Real World' combined with any show starring Bear Grylls. It’s titillation. It’s sugar. And unless we heap scorn on such cynical attempts to convince us that a better world isn’t possible, it’s dangerous.

Utopia Lost

by Douglas Payn

September 12, 2014

Community can work... but maybe not on TV. 

Television and humanity: same subject, different goals.