Fox attempting to break new ground with 'Utopia'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) — It appears as if almost anything might be possible in "Utopia."

Whether its ensuring participants can legally hunt, readying for wildfires or accounting for an impending pregnancy, the masterminds behind the new Fox unscripted society-building series have prepared for every possible situation at the rural compound where they're filming "Utopia." Except for one: What if nobody watches?

That's not a scenario the creators of this human ant farm even want to consider.

"Realistically, I don't know," conceded executive producer Conrad Green in his trailer office across from the "Utopia" set a few days before the participants — or "pioneers," as they're called — moved onto a made-over Santa Clarita, California, ranch that's often used as a location in films and TV shows. "The hope, of course, is that it will be a huge success and go on for much more than a year."

Based on a Dutch format, the U.S. version of "Utopia" is billed as a 365-day-long social experiment where 15 folks have been selected to live and work together on a bare-bones plot of land while being filmed by 130 cameras. Unlike similar reality TV trials like "Survivor" and "Big Brother," there's no host, competition or prize. There aren't even humans carrying around cameras.

The action is captured entirely by remote-controlled gizmos positioned in trees, on rocks and throughout the only pair of buildings on the "Utopia" site: a small stable stocked with a chicken coop and two dairy cows, and a large open-air barn where the cast can find shade and sleep. The footage will be overseen, edited and streamed from a complex of trailers steps away from the set.

Green said the producers cast Utopians with contrasting personalities in hopes that the ambitious show wouldn't simply result in a televised "hippy commune." The pioneers include a belly dancer, Southern pastor and a pregnant woman due in December. The series will feature a monthly elimination that will keep the cast changing throughout the life of "Utopia."

"My biggest fear is that it's boring," said Green. "The reason unscripted shows are heavily formatted is because that provides reliable, relentless moments of drama... We have to use the intimacy and purity of the observation we've established to make it interesting in and of itself."

"Utopia," which debuts Sunday before airing each Tuesday and Friday, marks an audacious gambit for Fox. The network has seen ratings for aging talent contests like "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance" slide in recent years. Simon Andreae, the new head of alternative entertainment at the network, isn't afraid of taking a chance on the "Truman Show"-like series.

"I think we live in a go-big-or-go-home world now, where if you don't take risks, if you go for safe shows, you don't get many big wins, as we've seen in the last year or so of unscripted TV," said Andreae. "That said, I don't think it's just any old big risk. It's a measured risk."

Despite lofty aspirations, "Utopia" won't be boundless. The cast must abide by laws, and they've agreed not to leave the compound unless there's an emergency or they want off the show. While fences surround the "Utopia" camp, producers are planning for future visits from pioneers' friends and families, as well as appointments if they choose to do business with the outside world.

The unique series marks not just a creative risk for Fox but also a financial gamble. The network reportedly spent $50 million to construct the "Utopia" site, which also includes a small man-made lake stocked with 400 fish, a phony water tower that actually holds a light used to illuminate the compound at night and access for the cast to electricity and plumbing.

"It has been an expensive undertaking, but it's the reverse of most shows," noted Andreae. "Usually, shows become more expensive the more episodes and seasons are produced. This show was expensive to build out in the first place, but the longer it goes on, the less expensive it becomes."

"Utopia" has already been home to plenty of drama, judging from the show's live streams, which went online last week: one cast member was removed before filming began for violating the show's confidentiality agreement, another was treated at a hospital for dehydration before returning; and several have threatened to leave over clashes involving food, alcohol and religion.

Welcome to "Utopia."




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