Film, News & Commentary

ABC's Utopia returns as truth edges past strange fictions

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The opening credits of ABC’s Utopia features audio from several politicians and political commentators talking about the importance of nation-building and infrastructure, with perhaps the most recognisable clip being Tony Abbott declaring: “I want to be known as the infrastructure Prime Minister”.
If that statement seemed a little too optimistic when the first season of Utopia aired last year, it’s now completely laughable. Abbott has come under consistent criticism over the last year for not delivering the kind of investment in infrastructure he flagged before the 2013 election. And even if Abbott were to announce a series of unprecedented investments, at this point there’s almost no chance he could ever be known as the infrastructure Prime Minister.
Utopia, Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner’s hit satire about the fictional Nation Building Authority, returns to the ABC this week for its second eight-episode season. Much like their earlier hit Frontline (which, when viewed today, could almost pass for a documentary on commercial current affairs broadcasting), the scenarios they dramatise are disconcertingly close to reality.
Following the staff members of the NBA, led by their CEO Tony (played by Sitch), Utopia lampoons bureaucracies and offices, and all their failures: the time and money-wasting, the confused priorities, the red tape and the obsession with image over substance.
In this season, Celia Pacquola’s long-suffering Nat takes on a more central role as the straight woman amongst all the colourful characters whose only real roles seem to be ensuring that nothing can actually get done (there’s a hilarious guest appearance from Rebecca Massey as a hopeless HR manager). Nat is the audience’s guide to the NBA, and Pacquola is so likeable and relatable that all her frustrations can be sharply felt.
The pace is as fast as it was in the first season, with all the quick editing and frantic, percussive soundtrack driving the action forward.
Things get off to a slightly cool start, as the first episode takes place at the beginning of a new year (and they’re already behind with their annual report, not due until May). There are a few almost-up-to-the-minute references thrown in a little abruptly (50 Shades, FitBits and a Nutribullet) and the episode largely covers ground tackled in the first season.
But the following three episodes are brilliant, heading in a new direction. Kitty Flanagan’s performance as the publicist Rhonda comes into her own in this season, particularly as she forces the organisation to stage a lavish launch for media attention when there’s really nothing new to launch.
When Tony says, “I thought we already had a launch,” Rhonda responds, “That was an announcement.”
When she then advises that there’ll be a Welcome to Country as they launch their gigantic tunnel, Tony responds: “Welcome to country? We’re digging a great big hole in their country.” (It reminded me of a fairly awkward Welcome to Country address I witnessed at the launch of a massive building development on traditional lands).
There’s also an extraordinary narrative in the fourth episode in which the staff of the NBA are required to instantly come up with a brand new revolutionary policy to match the PM’s slogan “Education Nation” and subsequent media release. They’re told to “put some flesh on the bones” of the policy, but all that exists is a vague one-page media release. It might be heightened, but this style of policy on the run is worryingly recognisable.
In the first half of this new season (the second half is not yet available for media to preview)there doesn’t seem to be any sense that public servants are facing the threat of redundancy. Perhaps that’s a deliberate choice because the nation-building body is clearly a favourite of politicians: a protected species able to be manipulated for political gain more easily than most of the public service. Or perhaps that threat will surface in the second half of the season and the characters will have to learn how work effectively with quickly diminishing resources. It’s an issue which seems too big to ignore in a tv series about the public service.

[box]Photo: Hwa Goh ©Utopia TV Pty Ltd
Utopia airs on Wednesdays at 9pm[/box]

2 responses to “ABC's Utopia returns as truth edges past strange fictions

  1. The helicopter joke (at the end of the trailer) seems very timely although I suspect the program was recorded before the Bronwyn Bishop helicopter scandal.

  2. Given Tony Abbott’s gigantic ego-pinned onto a stick figure-her will probably think the show was written about him. Can a Royal Commission be far behind?

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