Recently, I’ve been watching Utopia on FOX. The first episode introduced 15 people who were chosen to live in a “utopia” for a year. The only thing they could bring was a small box of personal belongings. Amongst the cast was a polygamist belly dancer, a former inmate with a violent temper, a lawyer, a hillbilly with no teeth, a yoga instructor, and a chef. Within the first 20 minutes Dave, the former inmate, lost his temper because the utopians were only allowed to fill one box with all of their belongings, leaving most of their stuff behind. Dave yelled, “I was told I could bring everything in this box! I’m not doing this if I have to leave anything behind!” I think he punched the wall a few times and stormed out, eventually calming down. Cute 20-year-old Bri wanted to bring bug spray, but the environmentalist Bella said it might be bad for the insects and bees needed to pollinate their plants. No one acknowledged her even though she had a point.
The utopians are filmed 24 hours a day. There are 130 cameras capturing their every move and listening to everything they say. Anyone can watch parts of the live feed on their website, and if you pay a monthly fee of $4.99, you can watch them non-stop, 24/7. A friend of mine described watching the live feed as a “full-time job.” It actually reminds me of the documentary We Live In Public, about the loss of privacy in the Internet age. It follows a guy named Josh Harris who set up a human terrarium in NYC in the late 90s, following every move of the 100 participants living in a building for a few months, broadcast on the Internet for everyone to watch. Josh Harris eventually put over 30 cameras in his own home and experienced a mental breakdown. He came to the conclusion that the Internet is not an intimate medium, and trading your private life for peer recognition will only result in harmful effects.
In the case of Utopia, having your every move put underneath a microscope is nothing new. Thousands of people have volunteered their time, likeness, and access to their inner thoughts for the entire world to see. It’s become a regular theme ever since The Real World made it hip over 20 years ago. I initially got into Utopia thinking, “what are these idiots going to say next?” But then my “ironic” watching turned into just watching. I’m not afraid to say I watch The Bachelor because I really fucking enjoy that shit.
The relationships on Utopia have evolved just like any other reality show, but this is the first time everyone has to create their own world, not be dropped into one. The government systems rotate amongst the cast members. One week was a “women rule” system, which actually worked quite well. Every few weeks someone is voted out and replaced to shake things up. In the case of Dave, the former inmate, everyone wanted him to leave based on his horrible temper. One episode when they were discussing food, Dave insisted on ordering Ramen noodles because they were cheap, and kept saying, “I want my soups!” He also said, “Prison food is the best food!” Both quotes I love saying out loud to myself, or when I pass by the Ramen noodle section in the grocery store.
The utopians need food to survive, and money to buy that food, so in order to make money they have to start businesses. The first and easiest way they made money was inviting people inside the gates and charging them $20 for a “Utopia Experience.” The guests were able to tour the land, meet the utopians, and buy their artwork. It was successful so they decided to do it the following weekend. Anyone could sign up to visit, and since it’s in Santa Clarita (45 minutes north of LA) I signed up along with my friend Lizzy. We got emails inviting us to the “Utopia Experience” and were stoked.
On our drive up there, we talked about who we wanted to meet. Bella, the environmentalist, was our first interest. She’s obsessed with organic everything and even ordered a water filter without the consent of the group. We wanted to tell her how much we appreciated her. Hex, the 6 foot tall huntress babe, was also on our list. She’s from Detroit so we wanted to talk Michigan with her. The youngest utopian, Bri, was also a priority because we wanted to encourage her to keep building confidence and to forget about Chris, the musician who has been kind of a dick to her after sleeping with her the first week. We’re really into this show, if you couldn’t tell.
The rules inside Utopia were strict- no phones obviously and no talk of production logistics. It was hard to not ask the utopians personal questions about food, sex, and how they survive without taking anti-anxiety pills. Mike the lawyer asked what my ideal utopia is and I said it consists of a candy machine filled with Ativan and an endless refrigerator full of Coronas and limes.
Inside the gates was much more beautiful than I expected. Also, I got the ring the entrance bell and was way too excited about that. All the utopians we met were much better looking in person, and I kept telling them that, which probably made me sound like a psychopath. Hex’s eyes were so dreamy, and Mike’s hair was straight off a L’Oreal hair dye box.
Lizzy bought Bella’s watercolor painting of the newborn calf, and I ended up spending a lot of time talking with Mike. At one point he said, “You’re the exact type of girl I would want to date.” I’m sort of in love with Mark Duplass, and Mike looks like a weird version of him, and he’s really funny, so I started to crush on him.
Oh, and then we made out. Whoops.
I left Utopia and looked at my phone to find a whole bunch of tweets from people watching the live feed saying, “OMG Mike is kissing a super young girl!” and “She’s @MelissaStetten!” and “Is that girl even legal?” Which is SUCH a great compliment. Of course I read the usual “FAMEWHORE” tweets from the h8ers, but I didn’t go there planning on causing that much of a ruckus. I actually liked that guy. I’ll probably send him a Facebook friend request in 11 months when he’s out.
You can go to www.UtopiaTV.com to see clips of me making out with that dude, or watch the episode Friday night, along with my mom who will be talking about this for the next year.