Thomas More’s Renaissance-era novel Utopia depicted an island community for whom private property and privacy were non-existent, divorce was legal, and pre-marital sex and atheism were illegal. In relatively more recent times, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged depicted all the wealth creators of society dropping out to create their own separate civilization, in what is described by adherents as “going Galt.”
Fox TV’s Utopia appears to be drawing on both of these for its new reality show, except that rather than prove a philosophical point either right or left, it’s more interested in entertaining you with the antics of people forced to cope for themselves on a 5-acre farm for a year.
Before the participants moved in to their new home, I was invited to the set, located in the canyons of Santa Clarita, California, to see what they – and the viewers – might be in for. I learned things.
1. It’s Not Going to Be a Libertarian Paradise.
In theory, the premise of Utopia is to see what happens when people from all walks of life are allowed to set up their own society with their own rules.
In practice, it is located within California, one of the most regulated states in the nation.
Producer John Kroll: “We have two producers who are responsible for dealing with all of the different authority figures, and all of the hunting licenses and permits and all those things. They provided the participants with explicit details of what they can and can’t do. We want to give them as much freedom as possible, but we are in the United States, and the state of California, and we have to abide by a lot of laws, because we are very visible.”
Producer David Bohnert: “Yeah. We’re obeying all of the laws, so if anybody is from out of state, they’re actually coming here to get a hunting license, and they’re getting it in advance. Obviously, they can only hunt animals that are in season. Like John said, we are highly visible, so we have to obey all of those laws.”
2. Dammit, Jim, She’s a Contestant, Not a Doctor.
One of the participants, Amanda Scott, is pregnant, and due to give birth while she’s on the show (may we suggest the name “Truman” if it’s a boy?). Fortunately for her, another contestant, Nikki Noce, is a “holistic doctor”…but only licensed in the state of New York. So yes, there are EMTs ready to go if anything happens, and yes, there are lots of women in America who were anxious to give birth on a reality TV show. “The baby’s father has been intimately involved in all of the discussions, ” says Kroll. “And very supportive,” adds Bohnert.
There may be (as yet) no running water or plumbing – it’s available at the front gate, but residents have to figure out how to run both up to the barn they’ll be living in – and yet “You’ve got better health-care provisions being here than you have pretty much anywhere else in America, apart from a hospital,” according to executive producer Conrad Green. Seems like that alone might be worth signing up, despite the lack of electricity.
3. Men Are From Crazytown, Women Are From Slutsville.
Fifteen participants are chosen initially. Every month, the person deemed to be contributing the least to their new makeshift society will be voted out, and replaced with a viewer who has applied online, and will have the advantage of not going in cold.
We were told that when you see those first 15, you’ll have no doubt they’re the best choices (though there would seem to be room for some second thoughts, as foul-mouthed Christian vegan Andrea has been kicked off already for sneaking in a smartphone and trying to gather early intel). Let’s look at some of them by gender, and see if you notice any common themes:
MEN include: “5th Avenue Dave, a former drug dealer and burglar who’s been in and out of jail since 17”; Rob Hopsidor, “a g*ddamn patriot” who’s excited to represent America – “the REAL ‘Merica”; Josh Johnston, “A natural leader and a self-proclaimed ‘sexy beast’; Jonathan Lovelace, “When I go to Utopia, God goes to Utopia,” he proclaims…[and]hopes to build a church and baptize his fellow Utopians; and Kentucky Red Vanwinkle, “I’ll be your Hillbilly MacGyver and your go-to guy.”
WOMEN include: Bella Chartrand, a naked yoga enthusiast AND doomsday prepper; Nikki Noce, a “holistic doctor and tantric sex enthusiast…sure to take a hands-on approach to communal living”; Bri Nyugen, a veterinary technician who says “It would be nice to be the prettiest girl in Utopia – that way, I could have my pick of the men”; Hex Vanisles, “six feet of twisted steel and sex appeal”; and Dedeker Winston, a model who “wants everyone to feel safe, warm and comfortable… with her non-traditional sexuality: polyamory.”
I asked Green if they’ll be checked for STDs, seeing as how condoms are probably hard to make from scratch on a farm. He admitted there was some general medical testing, but said when it comes to sex, it’s like the real world: “buyer beware.”
(Congratulations, wrestling fans, if you noticed there are participants named Nikki, Bri and Bella.)
4. That’s No Moon…It’s a Fake Water Station!
What looks like a water tower is actually the housing for a gigantic night-light that will flood the area like a fake moon, in the hopes that after-dark footage will look more like natural lunar reflection than most TV shows.
5. No Cameramen Required.
In most reality shows, there’s a tension as to how much the participants should acknowledge that the crew are right there and in their face. In Utopia, there are no cameramen. Just cameras, everywhere.
And they are indeed everywhere. “We’re not going to tell them of any safe spots, if there are any,” says Green, noting that if anyone decides to build a new free-standing structure, cameras will be moved into it the moment any people are.
6. If They Suffer, It’s Their Own Stupid Fault.
Kroll: “The beauty of this is that any misery is going to be self-induced, because they have the ability to – they’re going to create their own economy, and if they’re not eating well because they’re not raising enough money, then that’s their own fault. That’s been made very clear to the participants.”
And herein lies the reason this takes place in California, rather than a more lawless nation where hunting licenses don’t apply. “Part of it,” says Bohnert, “was also having them build businesses and work out of Utopia, so you want to be in the US for that portion of the show. The businesses that they create will interact with the outside world. They can’t leave the compound, but they will be doing business with the outside world, so people might be coming to visit them on a daily/weekly basis.” They’ll be given a small sum of money to start with, and a strictly monitored phone line and Internet (once they get electricity) that will only be able to access business-related numbers and sites.
24-7 observers in the control room will have a kill switch and are eager to use it.
7. Down in the Dumps.
This is the only plumbing they start with – the “poop bench.” It’s based on Kroll’s memories of growing up on a hippie commune, where they had the same thing. He tells us they won’t be going out of their way to show people on the toilet, but that some go out of their way to make it visible.
8. In the First Week of Testing, One Participant Already Went Nuts.
Prior to the main cast showing up, all the equipment was tested with a group of runners-up, and it didn’t take long for one to get bloodlust…for the chickens. Insisting on trying to carve one of them up, rather than the more pragmatic course of keeping it around to lay eggs, she was forced to leave, before even a week was up.
California laws are an issue here, too – if everyone votes to slaughter the cows or chickens on the property, they have to be sent away to a licensed slaughterhouse to do it.
9. I’m Better With a Bow Than That One Time at Renn Faire.
My aim was terrible, but that’s okay – you’re supposed to focus on technique first, and once that’s done, worry about the aim.
Fishing, on the other hand – the instructor bailed on me in the middle, so even though I was at the world’s easiest artificial lake loaded with catfish, my survivalist skills sucked there.
10. Talk About Shining Me on.
We were offered corn liquor before the tour began, so anything that followed could possibly have been a moonshine-induced hallucination. I don’t think so, though.
Utopia premieres Sunday on Fox. Check your local listings for exact time and channel.