Utopia, Series 2 Episode 1: “A Fresh Start”

For some reason we’re only seeing scripted comedy on the ABC and SBS in Australia. I’m not sure why; it’s cheaper to produce than a drama, but still more expensive than reality television. It makes no sense. In an era where Channel 7’s flagship reality show for the Spring, Restaurant Revolution, failed in its timeslot and was replaced by Cats Make You Laugh Out Loud which attracted 1.5 million viewers, I yearn for some local scripted comedy. The ABC has some great offerings, including Upper Middle Bogan and Utopia. I know people who don’t like the show because the two main characters are often getting frustrated at the nature of bureaucracy, but that’s the entire point.

Utopia is set in the offices of the Nation Building Authority, which is part of the Australian public service, and serves to build things so that we can further build our nation. The opening credits have soundbites of Australian politicians using catch phrases such as ‘nation building’, and in an era of buzzwords, no one knows exactly what that means. The people who work for the NBA often find themselves working on projects at the whim of the Prime Minister, and overriding zoning restrictions. Last year the Prime Minister wanted to build something in Tasmania, so the NBA went there to hold community consultations. The community wanted to have their roads fixed, but the PM wanted to build a sports stadium. You have to think big at the Nation Building Authority.

In the fourth episode of Series 1, “Onwards and Upwards”, Nat (Celia Pacquola) conducts a performance review for a member of staff she’s never met because he’s always sick or having a rostered day off. At the performance review, Nat asks this man questions about what he’s achieved, and he rattles off phrases like “achieved dynamic outcomes in partnership with stakeholders” – he even fills out his own review. Those are all impressive words, but they don’t mean anything. Nat gives him a bad review, he complains about harrassment, the higher ups accept the review he wrote, and he gets a promotion. It’s absurdist humour at its best, and perfectly encapsulates the tone of Utopia.

“A Fresh Start” chronicles the first week of work for the NBA in the new year. Katie’s raising money to get her local town’s pool repaired, and Tony isn’t able to get into the building or log onto his computer. The team also have to do an Occupational Health and Safety seminar after Hugh got injured at work the previous year. Oh, and Katie has organised Tony’s files so well that he can’t find the Darwin files. They used to be “there” and “there”. What we see over the first week back at work is Tony making a good effort at his fresh start: cycling to work every morning, having kale juice and eating grapefruit. By the end of the week he’s back to eating muffins and drinking coffee. He did his best.

The best storyline in the episode as usual comes via a directive from Jim, who works for the Prime Minister. He wants something big and exciting to start the new year, something the Prime Minister can sell to the public. When Tony and Nat talk about getting the pool in Katie’s home town fixed, they start asking around various departments to see if the town qualifies for a grant, and suddenly there’s a new initiative to build pools and recreational centres in small regional towns. All the ministers are on board and the heads of department come to visit the NBA, and the budget is a billion dollars. However the focus is on building new things. The pool that already exists is going to be filled in. Like with Tasmania’s roads, maintenance and repair isn’t as sexy as building. So Tony buys all of Katie’s raffle tickets. It’s the right thing to do, especially since it’s only 50 cents a ticket.

Notes:

  • If you’d like to watch the first season of Utopia, which has been renamed Dreamland in the UK and US, it’s on Netflix, and “A Fresh Start” is available on iview.
  • I’m not sure whether I’m going to review this every week, but I do enjoy the show.
  • This post has been thrown together because I have a lot I need to get done this week.
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