Utopia Falls, Hulu’s latest TV series offering, has a premise straight out of young adult fiction. Every year, New Babyl hosts “The Exemplar,” which sees twenty-four teenagers participate in a musical competition to win the title, and make history. It’s Divergent meets Step Up and how you feel about either or both of those franchises is probably a good barometer for how you will feel about Utopia Falls.
Coming from showrunner Joseph Mallozzi (known for his work on the Stargate series, and more recently Dark Matter) and created by Canadian director R.T. Thorne (Degrassi: The Next Generation, Degrassi: Next Class), Utopia Falls seems like it should garner higher expectations than its weird premise would suggest. I am self-proclaimed YA Trash, so on paper this was Extremely My Shit, but I realized (maybe too late) that there is a performance element to the show. Musicals can be a hard sell for many modern audience members, including this one, so I had a healthy bit of skepticism around whether I’d enjoy the series. Fortunately, the song and dance aspects did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the show.
The show follows dancer Aliyah (Robyn Alomar) and singer Bodhi (Akiel Julien) as they discover a secret cache of forbidden music and knowledge they call the Archive (voiced by Snoop Dogg). When they share the Archive with friends and fellow candidates, it begins to influence how they perform, and how they think. Confronted with the realities of the past, they start to question whether the utopia they’ve always known is actually what it seems.
Set in the distant future, hundreds of years after some calamity called The Great Flash, the citizens of New Babyl are the last humans on Earth. The city is separated into four sectors: Industry, Nature, Progress, and Reform. Industry builds things. Nature produces raw materials and food. Progress leads, administrates, and innovates. Reform is where people who have committed crimes (and their often innocent families) go to redeem themselves. They all work in harmony to care for the city and each other.
Described as “post-racial,” New Babyl has all the trappings of your average dystopic society wherein race is no longer a factor, but other, equally trivial distinctions separate people into the privileged and the oppressed. Sexism and homophobia also seem to be things of the past, and for all intents and purposes everyone is equal. Except, there is an obvious hierarchy between the sectors. As you can imagine, being born in Reform, the sector for people who have committed crimes (and their families, who have done nothing), puts you at a severe disadvantage compared to those born in, say, Progress. Bigotry may not exist in this world in the way we think about it today, but classism certainly does, and it one of the things Aliyah and Bodhi become aware of as they delve into the context and meaning behind the songs they discover in the Archive.
The Exemplar candidates are given “traditional” compositions, which are “safe,” usually watered-down popular songs from before the Great Flash, and expected to perform under rigid standards with very little deviance from the expected. Aliyah, Bodhi, along with friends Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz), Apollo (Phillip Lewitski), Sage (Devyn Nekoda), Mags (Mickeey Nguyen) and Brooklyn (Humberly González), begin to incorporate hip-hop elements into their music and dance performances. Their new style inspires and energizes the citizens of New Babyl, much to the dismay of the Tribunal. The Exemplar is to New Babyl what The Hunger Games are to Panem: propaganda as entertainment, but to a much gentler degree.
There is no question as to why the Tribunal, New Babyl’s governing body, would want to keep pre-apocalypse music and art away from its citizens, especially hip-hop. Hip-hop is storytelling in music form, and artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole (who Aliyah and her friends seem particularly drawn to) use their lyrics to share their experiences and reflect their realities. The Authority does not tolerate self-expression or any form of dissent. They maintain order by keeping the populace ignorant, because if you’d never heard someone describe oppression you might not recognize you’re being oppressed. What is unclear, however, is how the leaders of New Babyl determined that hip-hop specifically was more transgressive than say, soul, which exemplar candidates are allowed to perform.
Over the course of the season, music — hip-hop and rap especially — gives Bodhi the vocabulary to express his discontent with the way Reform is treated in the larger society. Aliyah and Sage use dance and movement to empower themselves and others. Each candidate takes something different from the art and culture they’re exposed to in the Archive, and they all incorporate those lessons in meaningful ways. Music is a universal language and the Exemplar candidates use their broadened understanding of it to open a dialogue and start a movement.
The performances throughout the show are mostly fine, with the exception of Bodhi, whose clean rap delivery sets him apart from his peers. The vocal numbers aren’t particularly exciting, but the dance routines have a bit more to offer, even if the cast was not equally equipped to take on the choreography. Ballet and interpretive dance are “traditional” in New Babyl, so there is at least a plausible in-universe reason for why some of the hip-hop dancing looks clunky and awkward. That being said, the performance elements could be more impactful, considering the weight they’re given within the story.
What the show does well is take the old concept of a seemingly utopic, post-apocalyptic society, and infuse it with just enough new ideas to make it feel fresh. It is, of course, a product of all of its influences, so there are clear similarities between it and other coming-of-age dystopian stories. But it does feel different. I enjoy how music propels the story, and it’s fun watching the young characters make connections between the past they hear about and the reality they’re living. The show reaches for depth and nuance, and though it falls short more often than not, there is a clear attempt to say something meaningful. With stronger acting and better musical performances, Utopia Falls could be great. Given the casts steady growth throughout, I’m confident the show can elevate in a second season.
The Exemplar competition provides a stage for a larger, more expansive narrative to play out. And though it takes a few episodes for the show to find it’s groove, when it finds its rhythm, it hits every step. Utopia Falls delivers, even if it borrows heavily from other recent YA franchises like Divergent and The Hunger Games. What it lacks in original takes on a post-apocalyptic world, it makes up for in characters with heart and a ride you enjoy, even when the you can see the twists and turns coming.
Utopia Falls premieres on Hulu on February 14.