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Loathsome Amiability: Why Watching Utopia Hurts

Let’s be frank: watching Utopia hurts. It involves stinging your eyeballs, tearing your hair, and taking yourself to the ledge of a skyscraper to call the whole thing off. The fact that the characters are meant to be faux pleasing is no excuse not to loathe them.

This Australian satire on bureaucracy, specifically featuring the bureaucracy of infrastructure development, displays buffoonery, stupidity, and workplace retardation of hideous scale. It is a micro snapshot of the public service and its poisonous symbiosis with the political class, an insight into virtually any modern organisation in retreat from its principles. In it, we see the same recipe repeated across government departments, corporations, the modern failed university, and its managers.

From 2014, Utopia had two focal points: infrastructure projects of the National Building Authority, and the employees who, in various ways, advance, retreat, and then diminish the allocated task. Ideas struggle to be born. In their infancy, smothering is a must. If such ideas eventually develop legs, they will be shackled and bound.

How this is manifested varies. It could come in the form of a feasibility study. The outcome of that feasibility study is bound to lead to other studies, and so forth, suggesting a law of false productivity. If changes do take place, they never progress beyond tinkering with fences or redesigning logos. The rest is just enactment and illusion. The projects that do eventually get realised in all their horror are the cockups, the bungles, the budget nightmares.

The office dimension is salient in Utopia, a universe where kindly failure is celebrated. It is the site of constipated endeavours, where the only possible momentum takes place via catering choices and the watercooler. Where work is not actually done (there is a preference for work about work), and progress painfully slow, distractions in language and communications offer solace and salvation. Human Resource freaks take centre stage and parade; legal advisors intervene and meddle in priestly instruction. There is a focus on professional development, a spotlight on diet, protocols of behaviour.

There is, however, a conscious departure in the series from brute workplace aggression and manic bullying in the manner of The Thick of It. It is precisely this recipe that gives Utopia its self-harming appeal. You are meant to find the characters amiable, even mildly likable. Banish the thought.

Rob Sitch, the director of the series who also plays the frustrated Tony Woodford, head of the NBA, puts it like this: “Utopia came along at a time when the idea of someone yelling at people in the workplace went out years ago. So, it is all these quiet, passive-aggressive frustrations where you have got to negotiate telling people off and try to get the best out of people without actually offending anyone, especially if they are acting in good faith.”

After four seasons, the well should have run dry, with those amiable darlings vanishing in a devastating Australian drought. But fecundity has returned, and the landscape abloom with flourishing feeds. Typically, the inspiration for the 2023 series comes from inauspicious, even banal origins. Sitch had something of a revelation when stuck in roadworks on a city freeway. “I reckon I had been driving up and down the freeway for four years through those roadworks. I turned to someone in the car and said, this looks like it hasn’t changed. When are they going to finish it?”

What grates with such an otherwise superb effort – it’s not every day you can loathe the affable so easily – is its cosmic immutability, a state of affairs assisted by the characters. Utopia is a horrific concession to such a reality, revels in it, and does so with that Australian “she’ll be right mate” disposition that can only cause despair. Instead of brave reform and dynamic movement, there is hemmed in status quo cowardice, a cementing stasis. To repurpose the language of the Australian historian Manning Clark, this is not the language of the enlargers but the straightening types. It would probably be kinder to call them the straitjacketing types with thick folders of neuroses.

It is for such reasons that the sane thinker should disagree with the following assessment in The Australian by Troy Bramston. “It is not possible to dislike any of the characters because they are all so affable and they mean well, whether it is human resources manager Beverley Sadler (Rebecca Massey) warning of legal pitfalls dealing with the staff or Brian Collins (Jamie Robertson), responsible for security and building services, updating office equipment and making sure everyone is wearing a lanyard.”

Utopia builds on a substantial record from Working Dog, whose credits include Frontline and the The Hollowmen. It also strikes a similar note to The Games, which premiered in 1998 and lasted two seasons. Ironically enough, that remarkable effort prophesied catastrophe and failure at the Sydney Olympic Games, or at least a rather impoverished show. Nothing of the sort happened, and, most unusually, the games were budgeted and paid for ahead of the event. Oddly enough, the characters in John Clarke’s brilliant creation, showing the irreducible power of absurdity and image when bureaucracies and stage-managing meet, are rather likeable.

Utopia is of that tradition, though it should come with a health warning for those damaged and ruined by the innumerable workspaces and agencies that operate with the cul-de-sac in mind, prizing the polite delivery of inanities over hard substance. Many of the characters to be found in such carceral spaces are distinctly not affable and deserve to be given a generous lashing of opprobrium.


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  1. eric ter laare

    i can certainly identify with the characters having been a college teacher for over 25 years and having to tread on eggshells in case i offended anyone!
    was not even allowed to write the truth in reports about students in case i caused them depression!

  2. Baby Jewels

    Not even funny. Too close to tragic reality.

  3. Clakka

    In this land where the voting populous of feckless two-bit accountants, pumped up lawyers, tee-shirt sellers, ice-cream vendors and budding extortionate restaurateurs and shop-keepers think they’ve got a handle on things economic, political and bureaucratic, in the main, they wouldn’t have a clue.

    Before it became globally trendy to gut the public service, outsource and privatise everything, the departments, from the clerical floor through specialist experts to the mandarins, were a respected, diligent, hard-working force of nature, good education and experience, a bastion willing to give frank and fearless advice on behalf of the citizens. Politicians, disliking frank and fearless advice from anyone, and seeing opportunities to cover their own arses, decided to rid themselves of it, privatise everything (fix their mismanaged budgets), and fashion their own trough, and form a corruption facilitating the filling of that trough.

    Sadly, this all happened as the increasing complexity of modern infrastructure projects, from concept to financing, development and execution brought forward a realisation that public servants working together with the perspectives of expertise from within the private sector, could lead to better outcomes for the citizens. But alas, the politicians smelling glory and the trough elected to privatise the lot.

    It has taken more than 30 years for PPPs and alliances to reach an operable maturity, during which time many of the fine experienced grey hair was booted from the PS, leaving it operated by struggling, brainwashed juniors under the new mandarin mafioso. Over that time we saw increasingly corrupted politicians involve us in a frenzy of both inappropriate and over-egged projects unleashed by foreign investor / developer / construction conglomerates seeking somewhere to park their underperforming funds. Whilst many an Oz auditor-general was tearing their hair out.

    During their entire period I was a construction / finance / contract specialist working independently in the field. The structured (but of course accidental) fraud and corruption running was horrendous and gruelling. And one had to watch one’s back and one’s pocket all the time.

    It was a culture instituted and perpetuated by (and for) politicians. And I have to say I always felt sorry for the disempowered middle management, specialists and engineers within both the PS and the contractors. The entirety of the structured fraud brutalised them. It was not of their making, yet they had to endure it somehow, or get out.

    One project in NSW was particularly egregious. After 4+ years of deep forensic investigation, where we made progressive claim against the government, we had accumulated enough evidence to contemplate a referral to ICAC. However we were required by contract to persist with the contractual / legal ways and means to achieve an equitable result. There were big-bucks-lawyers hanging off it everywhere, and the government spared no amount of contorted guile in giving us the runaround. In the end, we had assembled our full / detailed claim and presented it. The government foot-faulted and breached the time-terms of the contract, so we were able to injunct them, facilitating a roll-out of court proceedings. I remember the day of the first proceedings well, I flew early from Melbourne to Macquarie Street, their reps were there, but didn’t dare, so they ‘settled on the steps of the Supreme Court.’

    We had succeeded. But at what cost? Cash is king, so we got enough to go away, but not all to which we were entitled. The government was bruised, but none of the initiating or operational offenders nor their flunkies paid a price, and the citizens were fleeced.

    After so many years of those experiences, I am unable to watch Utopia – even the trailers make me cringe. It not only reminds me of those poor public servants throwing their disempowered hands in the air, surrendering, and resorting to banality, but also it represents the embedment in the psyche of the citizenry that the public service is perennially useless and corrupt. When in fact it is a conspiracy-by-design of criminally minded politicians and their mandarin mafioso.

    Thank goodness for ICAC, the Robodebt RC, the self-annihilation of Scummo and his band, and the advent of NACC. The seal of the lid on the filth has been broken and the stench emanates. Hopefully it can be prized right off all throughout Oz, and we can set to a path of proper governance for and by the people.

    Whilst I might hold my nose, I won’t be holding my breath.

  4. Geoff Andrews

    It’s a joke, Joyce.
    It’s meant to be funny: it IS funny.
    It’s reality pushed to the limit: one definition of humour.
    It’s taking the piss so well that the gullible will think it’s a drama.
    And don’t forget it was born in the fertile LNP years.
    There’s at least one episode where they have to talk with three Ministers and the Prime Minister shows up for all three meetings – nah – there’s a whole series waiting there.

  5. Stephengb

    Yes after many years in a commonwealth public service, I can see some of the Utopia characters.

    The only character missing is the total narcissist, the one dedicated to themselves and what they can gain for themselvses, their self engrandisment, those individuals who are always in your ear trying to steal kudos for themmselves.

    They made me sick, most of them could not organise a piss up in a brewy.

    How they got in the public service, never ceased to amaze me, although I realised that it was through cronism or nepotism

  6. Terence Mills

    Utopia cuts very close to the bone !

    I have just been reading about the saga and demise of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) which, then Agricultural minister Barnaby Joyce moved from Canberra to his own New England electorate.

    Of the 140 full time specialist employees only 15 took up the offer to move and the authority went down hill from there as they were unable to recruit specialist personnel locally.

    Utopia may use this disaster for a future programme and I’m sure it will be amusing but also painful to watch.

  7. JulianP

    I have found it greatly helps to refer both AUKUS and “China threat” enthusiasts to this gem:

  8. Geoff Andrews

    Surely that script is word for word from smuggled Cabinet meeting minutes sometime in 2021?

  9. Fred

    Dr Kampmark: Lighten up, it’s just a bit of fun (close to the bone). Having run large and/or weird projects, some for a quango, I am fortunate the scars have healed. I find “Utopia” hilarious even though I’m reminded of similar experiences in my working life – sometimes you even know where the show is going. The PR side is a little overdone but there are plenty of “Jim Gibson (govt liaison)” style individuals out there in real life.

    I remember the head scratching and “WTF just happened” of the project management team debrief after client project executive meetings was almost routine. Funny to look back on, crazy to work on at the time. The stupidity and arrogance to expect us to handle almost daily variations – wasted hours specifying, costing, planning all on a whim, just to have it change the next meeting. “Why” rarely received a logical answer.

  10. Truth Teller

    @JulianP, the remarkable brilliance of the episode you have referred to is that it was aired in 2017!! Maybe the Robodebt PM saw the episode and thought it was real? Leading him to the USUKA debacle?

  11. Geoff Andrews

    Truth Teller
    Proves that no members of the Cabinet OR the Shadow Cabinet watch “Utopia” or they all have short memories.

  12. Roswell

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never heard of it. 🤷🏻‍♂️

  13. leefe


    It may not be to your taste, but it’s very typical Australian satire and a classic Working Dogs product. Despite my time in the PS (thankfully many, many years ago) I find it hilarious; far too close to the bone sometimes, but still funny. And the cast are all superb, as is the writing.

  14. Roswell

    Thank you, leefe. I spent 35 years in the public service, so I’ve probably seen it all.

  15. Harry Lime

    Speaking of Utopia,Dan the Man has just pulled the rug out from under the 2026 Unequalwealth Games.Who could have guessed?It always looked shaky..I live in one of those regional cities,and nothing was happening.Good job,I say…spend the money on something that matters.The downward spiral of these utter wankfests continues.Premier Palletjack…take note.

  16. Bruce

    Harry, well, how do you like that, a politician makes a sensible decision. At a time of high inflation and cost over-runs putting public needs ahead of a 12 day jolly for some sports people sounds logical. I wonder if the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane will be next on the chopping block.
    I notice Dan lobbed the announcement into the flea pit of journos on the same day the YES/NO cases for the Voice referendum is to be published. No longer is he Dictator Dan, he is Wise Dan, a man of the denizens, Denizen Dan.

  17. Terence Mills

    Harry, I think there is a big difference between the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics.

    The Commonwealth is a diminishing reflection of the British Empire and its association with colonisation : I think it is on the way out .

    Congratulations to Dan for biting the bullet and pulling the pin before it’s too late.

    The Olympics are truly international – but mainly for the good guys – and should go well in Brisbane.

  18. Harry Lime

    Bruce, let him make a few more sensible decisions, we need them from all Labor politicians while they are in the driver’s seat,because we know we aren’t going to get them from the tosspots in the opposition.
    Yes Terence, there is a big difference, and it’s mainly the amount of loot to be squandered and the graft to be trousered.
    Meanwhile the dills in the opposition are falling over themselves to put the boot in.Pesutto the talking Shetland was quick out of the stables this morning,while the ever reliably dumb Ruston mouthing things like ‘contempt’,incompetence,smokescreens,integrity, etc.How quickly they forget their own squalid record.It’s like their 9 years of the same description never existed.Dutton’ contemptible rabble still treating the electorate like mugs.

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