In “Utopia,” which is not an adaptation of Thomas More’s 1516 work of philosophical speculative fiction but a reality show from the creator of “Big Brother,” 15 people volunteer to live together for a year without indoor plumbing.
As is the custom, the producers call it “a social experiment,” and the fact that they are more remote than usual from the participants, who have to figure out their own rules for living — within the imposed rules of the show — makes the term more than usually applicable. But the real social experiment is the one the series performs on the audience: How much time will people want to invest in this crowd, and how many Fox fall season promos can a person stand before paying for the upgraded mobile app?
Though the show premiered Sunday on Fox, the cameras (there are 129 of them reportedly) have been streaming round the clock via the Internet and onto mobile devices since Aug. 29, capturing material that will be cut and compressed into two episodes of reality television a week.
I have been checking in off and on, more off than on, when I remember to. But once I’m there, it’s easy — a little too easy — to keep watching, even when nothing much is happening.
Or, for me at least, especially when nothing much is happening. Or even nothing at all: I like it when everyone disappears from the frame and the camera lingers for a while on a tree or a shelf. But such shots are not liable to make the broadcast cut.
When the campers are just sitting around talking, about sex or God — or about each other behind their various radio-miked backs — they provide the gentle stimulation of coffee-shop eavesdropping. It’s what we do in the modern world: snoop. When they argue, mostly over food and money or someone’s self-professed expertise not being respected, it becomes tiring, like listening to the neighbors fight.
Unlike “Big Brother,” the point is not to conquer but cooperate, though not everyone understands that equally well; there has already been a separatist movement, built around the weirdly sweet, bumbling alliance of toothless “hillbilly” Red and questing ex-con Dave.
And unlike “Survivor,” the setting is not a harsh environment but a pleasant plot of land in the Santa Clarita Valley, with a fish-stocked pond, some cows and chickens and bits of rural bric-a-brac; it looks like a place you would pay good money to send your kids for the summer, notwithstanding everyone sleeps on the floor in the barn.
It is easy to feel superior to these things; it wasn’t so long ago that what we now call “reality television” was the stuff merely of science fiction and usually stood for some kind of deformity, some bad wrinkle, in the social fabric.
Now it’s just TV.
But anyone who has ever lived in a dorm, or a tour bus or as a cast member of “The Real World” will recognize the dynamic. Affinities and antipathies and attractions are already being proclaimed. (They are there a year; there will be sex.)
“Utopia” airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday and on six additional broadcasts on select Friday at 8 p.m. on Fox.