The big advantage a long-running sitcom has over just about every other form of television is familiarity. Dramas might get stale over the long run, but the better you get to know sitcom characters they funnier they get – well, some of the time at least. If you’re lucky, they become old friends it’s nice to check in with; we didn’t get five seasons of Rosehaven because it was cutting-edge satire.
But now Utopia is back for a fifth season, it’s clear it’s never been about the characters. It may be nice to have Tony (Rob Sitch) back being annoyed over the government’s refusal to listen to (his) common sense as head of the oversight body the Nation Building Authority, but he’s not exactly an old friend (do we even know if he’s married?). The much loved buddy we’re really here to see is bureaucratic bungling and media spin, and it’s like they never went away.
Ironically for a sitcom that made a big splash early on for pointing out all the reasons why high-speed rail would never go away while simultaneously never being built, Utopia runs on rails. Each week there’s an A plot where Tony tackles some big infrastructure issue that the audience is probably at least slightly aware of: in this season’s first episode he wants to know why a highway widening is running years behind schedule. Good luck with that.
Plot B involves Nat (Celia Pacquola), Tony’s deputy and the only other sane person in the series. She’s usually tackling some slightly smaller issue, often to do with the (office) politics behind the big issues. Here she’s been given the job of briefing a new deputy minister to the minister, only said deputy minister (Steve Bastoni) is too busy playing politics to sit still for five minutes.
There’s also a low-stakes C plot mixed in, where the ever changing nature of the modern workplace is put under the spotlight. The new high-tech office fridge does everything but keep milk cool; meanwhile Tony has to somehow come up with a farewell speech for an employee whose contract hasn’t been renewed without stirring up a firestorm of legal issues (or inadvertently triggering members of staff).
It is a rock solid, 100% reliable formula for delivering jokes about how politics – both generally and in the office – is all about substance over spin. Time and again we’re told that conflicting forces in society mean most issues will never be seriously tackled, and our government is much too interested in staying in government to govern in the public interest. It’s topical yet timeless; no wonder Utopia gets referenced every time a big infrastructure project looks set to syphon billions out of the national purse.
While there’s a big risk with this material of slipping into ‘old man yells at cloud’ territory – and there have been occasional episodes in the past where the targets have seemed a little ill-chosen – producers Working Dog know their stuff. Despite the sense of futility that underlies Utopia, for the most part they manage to highlight the underlying flaws in our system without getting overtly political, making sure the comedy comes first even when the moral is ‘maybe this woke business is getting a little out of hand’.
The only serious flaw here could be that after five remarkably consistent seasons it’s all been said before. Looked at another way, that’s the point. The system never changes and if anything, it’s getting worse. Past episodes made a point of getting to the truth behind the spin; season five’s first episode ends on a note that suggests those putting out the spin have gotten so good even Tony can’t uncover the truth.
Good news for Utopia’s writers, bad news for everyone else.
Utopia airs on the ABC Wednesday nights at 8pm, and on iView