Utopia Falls Is a Formulaic Dystopian YA Love Letter to Hip-Hop

Aliyah and Bohdi showing their friends the power of performance.
Aliyah and Bohdi showing their friends the power of performance.
Image: Hulu
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Hulu’s Utopia Falls, created by R.T. Thorne, is a dystopian YA drama that simultaneously feels like a story you’ve heard countless times before and like a heartfelt attempt at trying to bring something new to a generally formulaic genre.

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Set in a world where the last bastion of humanity lives in a literal bubble under the rule of a benevolently oppressive government that gently enforces social conformity, Utopia Falls tells the tale of a cadre of Plucky Teens™ who are—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—thrust into a competition that’s going to change their lives. What none of the young heroes know, though, is that they’re on a collision course with an ancient force with the power to completely tear asunder their perceptions of the world around them.

That force is hip-hop.

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Utopia Falls’ narrative similarities to The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner are immediate and unmistakable because the series isn’t exactly interested in reinventing those components of the wheel. Instead, the Hulu series uses a variety of past YA hallmarks as a way of centering the idea that art is a powerful form of expression that can directly combat fascism.

Hundreds of years in the future, after a devastating calamity has left most of the Earth uninhabitable, the planet’s few remaining survivors live in New Babyl. It’s an idyllic city within a massive, protective force field where the population is split into four different factions that define everyone’s roles in society. Those living in the Nature sector work tirelessly to cultivate and harvest plant and insect life to feed New Babyl’s people, while people hailing from Progress sector dedicate their lives to technological development and overseeing governmental affairs. Industry sector handles all of New Babyl’s important infrastructural needs, and everyone who is unable to cut it in any of the other sectors (the castoffs, essentially) ends up being placed into Reform sector, where they labor and meditate on what it means to be a productive member of society.

Though it’s not exactly clear how New Babyl’s governing body, the Authority, decides how people are sorted into their respective sectors, as the series begins, there’s little in the way of discontent regarding how the system works because, well, it works. In New Babyl, few people want for anything because everyone believes in the idea of contributing to the greater good, something they do by staying in their lines and doing the various jobs the Authority’s assigned them. The leaders of New Babyl ensure that belief in their society’s way is enshrined and celebrated by way of the Exemplar, an annual competition in which teenagers from different sectors are selected to perform songs and dances reflective of New Babyl’s culture (that involves modern dance, ballet, and instrumental covers of songs from the 20th and 21st century) before one of them goes on to become the Exemplar Champion.

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Much like a Pokémon Champion, it’s unclear just what exactly the Exemplar Champion is meant to do once they’ve won the competition, but that doesn’t stop young hopefuls like Aliyah (Robyn Alomar), Bohdi (Akiel Julien), and Magnus (Mickeey Nguyen) from dreaming of winning. Much as the Exemplar is a celebration of New Babyl as a whole, whomever becomes champion brings a significant amount of respect back to their specific sector, which is part of the tension that defines the series as it begins. For kids like Aliyah and her boyfriend Tempo (Robbie Graham-Kuntz) who’ve trained for the Exemplar all their lives, it’s merely an opportunity to show off their talents, but for others like Bohdi and Magnus, it’s a chance to prove to everyone that the people of Reform sector are deserving of recognition and respect the same as their higher-class counterparts.

Exemplar hopefuls during a dramatic training session.
Exemplar hopefuls during a dramatic training session.
Image: Hulu
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After 24 teenagers are selected to compete in the Exemplar, they’re all spirited away to the Exemplar Academy where they begin specialized training to hone their singing/dancing skills, and it’s there Utopia Falls’ story begins shifting into gear. As the daughter of an Authority member, Aliyah enjoys a certain degree of privilege that the other Exemplar contestants resent her for, but as everyone’s training begins, she proves herself to be an accomplished performer. Aliyah and Bohdi immediately recognize one another as being legitimate threats at their chances of winning, and so they develop a charged rivalry that feels like a precursor for romance.

Each of the Exemplar students has a particular strength, one or two disciplines that they believe is what might make them the ideal Champion. But as the season progresses, it’s somewhat difficult to recognize which of the kids is really excelling at any given moment. Utopia Falls is stacked with multi-talented people with the solid acting, singing, and dancing chops you’d expect from a musical show, but their performances all blend together to a certain extent because of the way they’re presented in the show. Regardless of whether they’re dancing to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” or Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” (both dramatic piano arrangements), the kids’ performances are all elegant, precise, and conservatory-style rote because that’s what the Authority expects of the students.

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All of this is quite normal for an Exemplar competition, but things take a turn for the mysterious one day when Aliyah stumbles upon the Archive, strange locked bunker that can only be unlocked by her touch. Though Aliyah doesn’t know what the small structure is, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s been inside it before, and when she steps inside, she’s alarmed to be greeted by the the Archive’s disembodied AI voice (Snoop Dogg.)

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While the citizens of New Babyl had been led to believe that there were only a few kinds of song and dance to ever exist, the Archive begins teaching her about the history of hip-hop—its origins in Black communities, the role it played in social revolutions and organizing, and how it evolved over time. Because she spent so much of her life studying New Babyl’s narrow definition of what fine art is, hip-hop is a revelation for Aliyah in large part because it’s obviously been erased from history for some reason. Her discovery sets of a chain reaction of events that gradually leads to more of her peers learning about the Archive’s existence, and as they all begin sneaking off to spend time learning from it, the information it contains begins influencing their performances in the Exemplar and their feelings about New Babyl.

Utopia Falls’ focus on hip-hop and the Black cultures that gave birth to it is both the series’ greatest strength and its biggest stumbling block because of the uneven way the series ends up incorporating the genre into its story. As the Archive teaches Aliyah and the other Exemplar cohort about hip-hop, they absorb and process the information the way any group of kids would consume historical art they had no real personal connection with. Everyone likes what the Archive shows them, but it’d be a stretch to say that they fully understand it, if only because they’re experiencing it decontextualized from the moments in history it all comes from. The result is that on more than a few occasions, Utopia Falls presents a record of hip-hop that’s almost entirely devoid of the female rappers who played fundamental roles in shaping the genre. Instead, the show never misses a chance to remind you that Snoop is voicing a library’s computer who just so happens to be a very big fan of the in-universe Snoop’s music.

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Unlike The Hunger Games, where the competition always felt like a life or death situation for contestants, Utopia Falls’ stakes are presented in a much lower octane kind of way. When people are identified as being disruptive and oppositional to the state, they’re “ghosted,” which is to say that they’re disappeared without a trace, but no one seems to make much of a fuss about it. As Aliyah and the other kids begin incorporating rap and other styles of dance into their routines, their Exemplar overseers are concerned and suspicious about what’s influencing them, but they can’t deny that the kids are bringing something new to the event.

Exemplar students indulging in some subversive extracurricular activities.
Exemplar students indulging in some subversive extracurricular activities.
Image: Hulu
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Throughout the season, Utopia Falls shifts out of its Degrassi-ish YA headspace into something more akin to Glee or Fame where the show’s cast of actors are given the space to show off their skills as singers and dancers. The unfortunate downside though is that often, Utopia Falls’ unabashed reverence for the performing arts borders on cheesy.

When seemingly villainous Authority head Phydra (Kate Drummond) menacingly tells Bohdi that “performance is power and it comes with great responsibility” at one point, the moment is meant to convey the idea that all art is political. By exposing the public to non-traditional songs and dances, the Exemplar kids are implicitly challenging the state’s ideology, which makes them a threat. But the way the performances are presented in the show ends up undercutting that message somewhat.

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Between its tendency to veer into after school special territory (at one point, Aliyah straight up asks the Archive to teach her what protesting is) before pausing for a musical number plucked straight out of High School Musical, it’s difficult to say who Utopia Falls is for, exactly. At multiple points throughout the season, the show self-consciously and unnecessarily acknowledges its own diversity in a way that feels a little tryhard. To its credit, though, Utopia Falls does get the message across that there are still so many ways in which these kinds of YA stories can and should make space for characters who are Black, brown, and queer, those whose stories are far too often missing from the genre.

Utopia Falls might not exactly blow your mind, but it’s something that you probably won’t mind watching a few episodes of while musing about whether you should have ever entertained the idea of going to performing arts camp.

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Utopia Falls is now streaming on Hulu.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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