Watching Hulus latest science fiction drama, Utopia Falls, feels like tripping headfirst into the young adult shelf at your local bookstore. The heroes are teensspunky, rebellious teens even. They live in a futuristic utopia (or is it a dystopia?). The entirety of their short lives has been leading up to this moment, which is a sort of selection process, a great sorting. The Chosen Ones are then thrust into a competition their whole world will watch. Its a great honor to be chosen. Everyone says so. That is, until the teens begin to doubt the premise of the game and the society that conceived it. Eventually, they must rebel. Except this time, the revolution is hip-hop.
Utopia Falls is a little bit Hunger Games and a little bit American Idol. To locate it even more precisely within the genre, the show is exactly what it would be like if Panems politely grim District 13 put on an annual talent show. Every year in the city of New Babyl, the last living colony on a postapocalyptic Earth, a handful of musically gifted 16-year-olds are chosen to represent their districts in a competition called The Exemplar. The acceptable forms of talent are limited: a modern dance/ballet hybrid, or big showy ballads about how grateful they are to their founder, who led citizens to New Babyl after a tech-fomented disaster they refer to as the Great Flash.
Everyone sticks to the program until two of the Exemplars stumble upon a mysterious archive of forbidden, ancient information. From the first rhymeIt was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! magazinetheyre entranced by hip-hop. The archive, which is voiced by none other than Snoop Dogg himself, is only too happy to continue their musical education. When they try to bring their newfound passion to the Exemplar competition, they find themselves dissidents. We embrace diversity. Its our strength, the flamboyantly villain-haired Authority Phydra tells them. But personal expression is something else. It fosters disharmony.
Hulu touts Utopia Falls as the first-ever sci-fi hip-hop television series. Thats more than likely true. Everything about the show suggests great ambition. It might have the ingredients of Hunger Games or Divergent, but it also aims to be something differentsomething a bit more nuanced than the standard YA story. Its very high-concept: Its themes bounce from censorship to racism and classism to diversity to criminal justice reform to expression and art to dissention and protest. It has over a dozen named characters, two love triangles, two major parental identity twists, and a musicals worth of songs and choreography packed into 10 episodes, and it all (almost) makes sense.
If youre over the age of 13, youll probably find that, at times, Utopia Falls is fondue-pot levels of cheesy. Sometimes its so sincere it hurts. It doesnt let you infer that free expression and self celebration is freedom in a society that prizes conformist harmonyit just tells you so. The shows other struggle (besides the actors uneven ability to deliver campy dialog in a believable fashion) is its speed-blurred world-building. Theres an awful lot of throat clearing in the first episode, but youre still left with questions. Exactly when is this? What are the rules? Fashion seems to be forbidden, but home decoration is not, and the Authorities are allowed pompadours that would make Snooki jealous. Why is hip-hop banned when other forms of music and dance arent just permitted but are central to New Babyls culture?
Still, theres a lot thats smart and interesting in between whiffs of confusion and fromage. Snoop Dogg manages to be extra charming even as a disembodied voice and is a nice tonal counterweight to the ultra-serious teenagers. In general, the actors are very successful in reacting to hip-hop like aliens who have just landed on Earth. While its not initially clear why hip-hop is unlawful, it is an excellent choice as Utopia Falls musical centerpiece. Its beats are immediately infectious and a joy to move to, and the characters happiness in hearing it seems so real you might find it jumping through the screen. Its messagesthe yearning, the highs and lows of success, oppression, rebellionsuit the show and its genre perfectly. After the glossy stiffness of New Babyl, some Biggie and Kendrick Lamar is everything the characters and viewers could want. (That said, if you dont already enjoy hip-hop, this one isnt for you.)