Every episode of Utopia released to critics came with a lengthy list of “Do Not Reveals,” plot twists that shouldn’t be spoiled. So, broadly speaking, each of the eight hours features a handful of gasp-inducing moments, a revelation or two about the show’s ongoing pandemic, and at least one gruesome death; in fact, Flynn amasses the highest body count she’s ever written. It’s a series so packed with curveballs, viewers learn to grow wary of new characters and story developments—so much so that, in my case, some intended jaw-droppers later in the season did little more than part my lips. But in a way, that’s Flynn’s point: She wants Utopia to keep viewers—likely binge-watchers—on their toes, to participate in the unraveling mystery. She wants them to notice the irony built into the work of the most inventive conspiracy theorists: their most bizarre, most obsession-inducing theories are often fools’ errands, so complicated that they’re basically impossible to prove. Conspiracy theories, however plausible or implausible, run the gamut from soothing to unnerving. Through Utopia, Flynn tries to deliver a pop-culture portrayal—a series that’s part satire, part black comedy, part sci-fi, and part paranoia thriller—that contends with those extremes.
That’s a lot for one TV show to do, and so far, the reception to the series has been mixed, with most reviews dinging the crowded plot and its horrific violence, as well as noting its tonal differences from the British version. Flynn anticipated the comparisons. “I totally get it,” she told me. “As a fanwoman, I’m very protective of the originals I love.” Besides, as a former TV critic, she understands the process: “I don’t take it as personally as I might otherwise. If I didn’t know the exact process by which it happened … it might feel much more overwhelming, much more mysterious, like, All of this organization hates this thing that I worked so hard on, as opposed to, This used to be me having a tuna sandwich at lunch and writing the first draft of this review. I know what that’s like.”
Flynn’s personal experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been quiet compared with how her characters are faring in the crisis she imagined for them. She and her husband drove their family to Kansas City in July, quarantining inside a house by an idyllic lake, before visiting her parents. (“We vowed that my mom wouldn’t go a month without seeing the grandkids,” she explained.) Back at home in Chicago now, when she’s not hunting for Cherry Coke Zero, she’s working inside her office—a much nicer space than the one she worked in in her Gone Girl days.
Of course, she told me, “I do tend to have a little bit of the free-floating anxiety that I think everyone else does, just because we don’t know where this is going.” She doesn’t know when her kids will go back to school in person, for one thing. And she’s also been meaning to finish her next novel, a Trump era–inspired story that she’s been working on for years while juggling screenwriting commitments. It’s a book she once cheekily teased as having “the greatest first page that’s ever been written.” I asked her if the next page was just as good. She laughed, shaking her head. “I would say it’s probably 92 percent as good as the first,” she said.
At first I assumed she was being self-deprecating again, but she was just being frank. “I’m not someone who has a large number of talents in the world,” she admitted, chuckling. “I am not one of those people who's like, ‘I have a great facility with languages!’ Or, ‘I’ll fall back on my math skills!’ I really knew how to do one thing, which was write and report.” If she’s learned one thing from writing characters who question everything, it’s that she shouldn’t question her own instincts.