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American television has colonised the world’s unconscious. Television shows from other countries, however, can sometimes break through to the surface. We’ve decided to highlight three recent examples. Each is distinctive in their own right and have deservedly attracted cult followings. They are all readily available in one form or another. Consider watching these true originals before American remakes completely ruin them or force them back into hiding underground. 


 

Utopia (2013 onwards)


Utopia is a work of brilliant imagination from the UK. The thriller for our times was never going to be as popular as (say) Dr Who or Downton Abbey though. Viewers will inevitably find themselves lost within the murky labyrinth of a conspiracy thriller that traps you from the opening scene. As the remarkable opening forewarns, Utopia takes no prisoners and may make your head spin. It’s not just the winding narrative or opaque motivations that disorientates. The series tone is equally disorientating and Utopia can be as harrowing as it is funny. It’s no surprise that the show scared off many of its own viewers during its controversial first run. Nonetheless, a dedicated cult following—and international word of mouth—ensured a reprieve for the low rating TV show. Few can doubt that the second series will be even stranger, more imaginative and brilliantly intriguing than the first.


Utopia is structured around prophesies hidden within a mysterious graphic novel: nothing less than humanity’s future is to be found within its lost pages. Utopia also brings a disparate range of people together trying to second guess one another—some are as hard to read (and find) as the manuscript for “The Utopia Experiments”. The TV series follows the lead of graphic novels when entering its labyrinthine narrative. The storytelling and visuals become inseparable, and are an integral part of the show’s back and forth movements. Utopia’s narrative moves through sequential visual storytelling, establishing a rhythm between imagery and action. It’s therefore fitting that Utopia’s murky labyrinth is full of tightly drawn framing and double-page wide shots.


Given the comic book sensibility, the show’s gallery of characters are equally colourful and expansive. Utopia is populated with eccentric hitmen, mad scientists, femme fatales, precocious children, corrupt politicians and relatively ordinary people trying to find their way in (and out) of the labyrninth. The show’s ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ come from various strata of society, and it’s difficult to know whose side they really are—or should be—on. The TV series is distinguished by its visual style, black humour, off kilter characters and disturbing violence. During the course of six episodes, Utopia  builds tension and momentum through its pursuit of secret knowledge. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Utopia is the way it directs viewers down misleading pathways. Many people might even be led to believe that the show’s own conspiracy theory is a utopian ideal.


 

The Returned aka Les Revenants (2012 onwards)


The Returned is one of the greatest, creepiest most compelling shows brought to television in recent times. Adapted from the 2004 film Les Revenants, the French television series improves on it in every way. Instead of being an allegory for the spectre of death, The Returned is now literally about the walking dead. Unlike The Walking Dead, however, The Returned remains a a very unique take on the undead. The eight part series primary inspiration appears to not be George A. Romero but David Lynch, and comparisons to Twin Peaks are likely to recur.


The Returned , then, is not a conventional zombie story. These undead haven’t come back to eat human flesh or turn the living into walking corpses. The zombies have also retained their consciousness: the memories and speech of their previous lives remain present and accounted for. Nonetheless, no one knows how or why the dead have suddenly emerged from their graves. Certainly not the dead, who are surprised to hear that they have been long dead and buried. There is no common ground between them: some have been dead longer than others and there is little sign of decomposition during the intervening years. While the lack of conventional horror and gore might deter many viewers, the show makes up for it in spades in other ways. The supernatural thriller compensates with mystery and intrigue, and a palpable dread permeates every scene. Confronting the unknown ends up being more terrifying than having an audience’s expectations met.


The Returned is essentially an inquiry into the mystery of death, and dramatically explores the question: is it possible for everyone to return to a previous life? The show raises this question from both sides of the divide. The living have either moved on or can’t let go whilst the dead need to catch up and/or push away the people rushing towards them. We don’t mean to play up the show’s tendency to unearth the seemingly mundane aspect of people’s lives. The supernatural elements intimate an eschatological framework: many more corpses appear to be returning and they might all have a bone to pick with the living.


 

Real Humans aka Äkta människor (2012 onwards)


Real Humans is arguably the best science-fiction series to hit the small screen in a long time. Unfortunately, more people seem to have heard about the Swedish show than actually seen it. And the reason these select few are saying that Real Humans is astonishingly great is that it is genuinely creepy. Whilst the show about androids covers familiar ground – the question of what it really means to be human –  the ten part series itself manages to blur the lines and cross boundaries.


As if to confirm its universal themes, the Swedish TV series is a spiritual successor to an American science fiction film and a Japanese manga, Blade Runner and Chobits respectively. Try to lower your expectations though. If you’re wired for state of the art special effects or elaborate set pieces, you’ll have to resist your programming. The science fiction drama is more drama than sci-fi, and actively courts speculation instead of spectacle. The production might be relatively low key, but it manages to scale heights regardless. Real Humans’ use of make-up is particularly effective here. Viewers will find themselves moving through the uncanny valley and entering the plains of hyperreality. Nonetheless, the television program’s intricate plot, provocative themes and unsettling scenes remain our main point of entry.

Contemporary consumer society is the series focal point, as many humans wants to own a hubot as a sign of happiness or success. Hubots have come to perform many functions in society, ranging from looking after the elderly to illicitly fulfilling sexual needs. Not all hubots or humans, however, are buying into the utopian ideal, and are starting to rebel against the system for opposing reasons. The issue of what is really human turns on the question of consciousness, where personal identity becomes a function of memory and/or tests the limits of self awareness. This issue cuts both ways: to what extent are humans aware of their creations and responsibilities, and in what ways are hubots conscious and responsible for themselves?


The show’s claim to greatness is to be found within its depictions of interactions across intersecting storylines. Real Humans is primarily about relationships, and successfully wrings out the humour and sadness inherent in the character’s situations. It teases out the implications and consequences of shifting social dynamics, between humans and robots and the hubots themselves. The multifaceted narrative simultaneously shifts into different gears, moving from the personal into the political (essentially the same difference when raising consciousness anyway). We won’t spoil the plot’s machinations. Suffice to say, Real Humans may end up testing the limits of your own humanity.


Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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