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Series / Utopia (2014)

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Believe us, it's a comedy.

Utopia is an Australian comedy series from Working Dog Productions, which premiered on ABC1 in August 2014. As of October 2019, it has run for four series of eight episodes each. It returned for a fifth series in June 2023.

Set inside the offices of the "Nation Building Authority", a newly created government organization responsible for overseeing major infrastructure projects, Utopia explores that moment when bureaucracy and grand dreams collide. It's a tribute to those political leaders who have somehow managed to take a long-term vision and use it for short-term gain. The series follows the working lives of a tight-knit team in charge of guiding big building schemes from announcement to unveiling. Constant shifts in priorities are the order of the day as the staff are asked to come up with plans for everything from new roads and rail lines to airports and high rise urban developments. In short, Utopia examines the forces that go into creating a very well-designed white elephant.

Utopia contains examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: A Running Gag in "Smart Cities" involves the conference organizers getting Tony's name wrong and referring to him as 'Tony Woodley' rather than 'Tony Woodford'. The final scene has him being announced as 'Tony Woodley' as he takes the stage to give the keynote address.
    • Everyone including the staff call the NBA by the wrong name, until the Government eventually changes it to what everyone was calling it.
  • Almighty Janitor: In "Snouts in the Trough", a man named Bert is hired for a variety of menial tasks (including janitorial) as part of the Second Start program, a program aimed at helping retirees get back into the workforce. It turns out he was a lifelong public servant, and when he looks at a proposed airport rail link, he finds enough reasonable cost cutting measures to cut the budget from 5 billion to 2 billion dollars. The Government isn't having any of it though. No prizes for guessing one of the programs they cut in order to get it done on the original budget.
  • Analogy Backfire: From "Terminal Problems":
    "What if we had given up at Gallipoli?"
    "We did."
  • Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?: In "Dot Dot Dot", Tony has to formulate a policy on an area he knows nothing about. He is complaining that all kinds of special interest groups are contacting him wanting to discuss the contents of a policy that hasn't been written yet, and comments that they would have better idea what should be in the policy than he does. The penny drops, he looks at Scott and says "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?". Scott replies "About ''Q&A''?".
  • Argument of Contradictions: In "Pipe Dreams", Rhonda and Nat get into an argument about whether what Rhonda is proposing is a mature debate, which quickly degenerates into "Yes, it is" "No, it isn't". It ends with Rhonda yelling "Yes, it is and I just won!".
  • Awesome, but Impractical: A number of art instillation in "Arts and Minds". For example: a sound wall that amplifies noise, a fake truck stop, and a particularly phallic 'Gun'.
  • Brick Joke: While asking Amy about the new evacuation alarms, Tony jokingly asks what the noise for "parking inspectors in the vicinity" is. They end up actually installing such an alarm.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: Parodied in "Tunnel Vision" when Brendan keeps colour-coding reports with barely-distinguishable variants of the same colour (e.g, using purple, lilac, mauve and turquoise in one report), despite Tony's attempts to tell him this isn't helping.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: In "Tunnel Vision", Jim is attempting to persuade Tony not to award a conract for a train tunnel to a Chinese company and keeps arranging increasingly clandestine meeting with him, including in the NBA's Parking Garage. In one of these, Tony turns up to a bench in a public park to find Jim wearing a black trench coat, fedora and sunglasses and sticking out like a sore thumb.
  • Cool Train: In "Very Fast Turnover", Jim pressures Tony and his team to investigate the possibility of a Very Fast Train from Melbourne to Brisbane via Sydney, despite numerous feasibility studies over the last few decades finding that it won't work. This does not stop the team designing and naming such a train, "The Silver Emu".
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: the property developer in "Onwards and Upwards".
  • Development Hell: Pretty much every project In-Universe becomes this as the Government, public opinion or private corporations interfere to push their own vision onto the projects.
    • The one time they actually manage to complete a plan for a project, the Badgerys Creek Airport, which would be the second Sydney airport and has been in Development Hell for over 50 years in real life, the electoral boundaries change the impact on the Government from 2 seats to 5, and thus they want it cancelled.
  • Eat the Evidence: In "Tunnel Vision", Jim, who is currently paranoid about Chinese eavesdropping, writes a message to Tony on a Post-It note, shows it to him, and then immediately eats it. A bewildered Tony then asks "Did you just eat a Post-It note?"
  • Embarrassing Slide: In "The Promise Land", during a workplace respect seminar, an incorrectly synced computer starts shown pictures of animals in factory farms from Katie's Animal Rights Party display instead of the proper slides.
  • Endangered Species: The episode "Protected Species" deals with a development that's been halted by the discovery of a new species of grass. Right when Tony seems to have dealt with it, an endangered and protected species of squirrel is discovered.
  • For Inconvenience, Press "1": The absurdly complicated registration system for the solar panels scheme Scott attempts to sign Tony up for in "Grand Designs". Sadly not a huge exaggeration of some actual websites.
  • Good Old Ways: Exemplified by Bert in "Snouts In The Trough". He was old fashioned gentleman who was pretty much the antithesis of the culture presented in the show and was not only polite and respectful but capable of developing a plan to save the tax payer billions of dollars by reverting to doing things the way they used to.
  • Government Agency of Fiction: Australia does not actually have a department named the Nation Building Authority (but the name is exactly the kind of meaningless buzzword crap the last few governments would have come up with).
  • Grammar Correction Gag: In "Wide Awoke", Tony keeps noting spelling errors on the protestors' signs ("turbine" and "moratorium") and Katie keeps going outside to inform them.
  • I'll Never Tell You What I'm Telling You!: In "Grand Designs", Scott keeps telling Tony not to read the articles attacking him and the NBA, only to then read them aloud in front of him.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: In "Story Time", Beverly tells Nat that her apology for supposed cultural appropriation has to be "sincere and from the heart". She then gives Nat the apology speech she'd already prepared for her.
  • Inept Talent Show Contestant: Every single entrant in 'NBA's Got Talent' in "Blue Sky Thinking". Highlights include a dance act whose smoke machine sets off the fire alarm, a white accountant attempting to do gangsta rap, and Ash's truly inept magic act, where he fails to guess Tony's card multiple times.
  • Inflationary Dialogue: Over the course of "Onwards and Upwards", the planned building goes from five storeys to sixty.
  • Is This Thing Still On?: In "Lights, Camera, Inaction", Nat and Ash are setting up a teleconference with Olaf Olafson from UNESCO. Nat asks "Why do Norwegian people always look like they've got of the shower?" and then tells Ash to turn the mute off, only for Olaf to say "I can hear you". After the prickly meeting ends, Ash shuts off the link and Nat says "Well, he was a barrel of laughs" and then Olaf's voice comes back "And if you need anything else, just call".
  • I Was Just Joking: Jim has a tendency to take statements from Tony as suggestions, no matter what context they were delivered in.
    • In "Onwards and Upwards", Tony sarcastically suggests trying to pass off a building as a "landmark development" to get it past height restrictions, which works.
    • In "The Whole Enchilada", Tony gives him a detailed analysis of a long-running project that has never yielded worthwhile results and probably never will even with a lot more money wasted on it and concludes by proposing that it be shelved. Jim misses the point and essentially takes "waste a lot more money on it" to be Tony's alternative option.
    • In "Frequently Avoided Questions", Tony, fed up with Jim and Rhonda's obvious attempts to delay responding a freight report, gives a prediction of how they're going to keep pushing it back. Again, it's taken as a suggestion.
  • The Key Is Behind the Lock: In "Frequently Avoided Questions" the security on Tony's computer is upgraded so he can't unlock it without a code that's sent to his phone. Unfortunately, he can't unlock his phone without a code that's been sent to his computer.
  • Meaningless Meaningful Words:
    • In "Onwards and Upwards", the entire performance review scene, much to Nat's frustration.
    • In "On the Defence", nobody can decipher a Defence White Paper because it's written entirely in such words. Everybody they bring in to explain it just paraphrases it using equally nebulous buzzwords.
  • Mistaken for Subculture: In "Wide Awoke", Brian goes out to search a group of elderly protestors after he sees what he thinks is a hate symbol on one of their signs. It turns out to be a badly drawn windmill.
  • No Party Given: The government of the day is not specified (and the dialogue over the opening credits includes soundbites from the two major sides of politics in Australia). Of note, the same Party has stayed in power throughout the show's run (with their being re-elected being a plot point in the 2023 episode "The Promise Land"). In real life, the centre-right (but confusingly named for people outside Australia), Liberal-National Coalition had been replaced by the centre-left Labor party in 2022.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • While bureaucracy is just one of the many barriers to actually getting anything done for the NBA, HR in particular is presented as being in a league of their own. If you want to hire someone, fire someone or promote someone you can guarantee they'll have a lengthy process to follow (which won't work). "Smart Cities" had Tony attempt to get Nat promoted acknowledging the great work she did and that she deserved it. HR then stepped in and required her to complete a lengthy evaluation to prove she was qualified. Of course, they couldn't accept Tony as her boss saying that she should be promoted because there was no paperwork on it. In the end, after looking through all the paperwork, HR decide to demote her.
    • In "The Buck Stops Where", Beverly takes over planning the farewell party of a staffer whose contract wasn't renewed, due to semi-justified concerns of the party triggering a wrongful termination lawsuit in some way. She ends up going so far as to have the cake's message redacted.
    • Tony becomes this to defeat the National ID Card proposal that his advice has been completely ignored on. As it rapidly turns from a proposal to a work in progress, at the final meeting before they go public, Tony, having been the designated whipping boy for the inevitable backlash decides the only way to shut it down is for him to agree to the policy, but on the condition that it has a public trial first. In Canberra. That all the members of parliament are on, where every meeting, taxpayer funded perk is immediately put down onto the card for the country to see. It is killed stone dead immediately.
  • Oh Wait, This Is My Grocery List: In "Clause for Concern", Tony and Jim end up drafting an amendment to a contract on the back of a piece of cardboard given to them by a homeless person (It Makes Sense in Context). The next day, Jim brings the cardboard back to Tony for him to check. He starts reading "I am down on my luck and homeless..." before realising and turning the cardboard over.
  • Only Sane Man/Surrounded by Idiots: Tony and Nat.
  • Opinion Override: In "Story Time", Nat gets in trouble when an old photo of her in a sombrero resurfaces online, leading to accusations of cultural appropriation which Beverly insists on having her address, culminating in a Youtuber Apology Parody. It eventually becomes apparent that none of the people claiming to be offended are actually Mexican, while the actual local Mexican community don't have a problem with it, to the point that Nat ends up being invited to Cinco de Mayo at the Mexican Embassy. At one point Beverly complains that the Mexicans "don't even know how to be offended".
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: In "Mission Creeps", Scott announces that the pilot for the NBA's new podcast had debuted at no. 4. In the public infrastructure category.
  • Phoney Call: Tony does this in "Smart Cities"; pretending to take an important call in order to ditch Brian the security guard who is insisting on reading him a lot of unhelpful Tweets.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: "Working With Children" has a 15 year old work experience school boy write a document reviewing the "blockchain" to keep him busy. The finished review is accidentally collated formally and sent to Jim, who then takes it to the Minister responsible for the NBA, who presents it to the Government Cabinet and by the end of the episode the boy is being taken to Canberra as a VIP to see the Prime Minister so that the PM can do a presentation at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in Singapore on the topic, as they all keep trying to call it a "hypothetical review".
  • Pointless Civic Project: Utopia is basically Pointless Civic Project : The Sitcom.
  • Political Overcorrectness:
    • Parodied in "Blue Sky Thinking" when before they could start work on a new council development Nat needed sign off on a 3D mock up on what it would look like (not the exact plans, just a conceptual interpretation of the layout). She then kept having to change it because different government departments got involved and noticed things like that the generic library template didn't have a wheelchair ramp or all of the generic fake people were white men (one of which, depicted with a child, even gets a complaint that "he doesn't look like a parent").
    • Also, in "Snouts In The Trough" when Only Sane Woman Nat is charmed by sweet old man Bert offering to make her a cuppanote  and get her a bickienote  and calling her "love", the first thing Nat is asked is if she wants to report him to HR.
    • Series 5 makes this a recurring theme, usually with HR or some other group intervening on the assumption that someone might be offended by some issue, such as the decorations in Tony's office.
  • Poor Communication Kills: In "Arts and Minds", Tony visits a primary school, asks them to suggest ideas for what the NBA could focus on, then tries to get them to think about prioritising them. He ends up with fanciful suggestions such as an Australian space program or a bridge connecting Victoria and Tasmania. The list ends up in Katie's hands, who misunderstands the word "Priority" and ends up copying and distributing it to the whole office and to Jim - who loves the idea of a space program and refuses to let Tony explain what happened. The list ends up earning widespread criticism for the NBA, with one commentator stating that it looks like the work of a bunch of hyperactive primary schoolers.
  • Reading the Stage Directions Out Loud: In "The Ghost of Christmas Future", the Minister is rehearsing a speech and talks about the new plan for busting traffic congestion and what it will mean for "insert city name here".
    Stage manager: Brisbane, minister.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: In "The Buck Stops Where?", a cabinet reshuffle lands NBA with an Assistant Minister for Infrastructure, who has been demoted from Minister for Veterans' Affairs. Nat and Ashan spend the entire episode attempting to brief him on NBA's priorities, but cannot get his attention for more than three minutes. At the end of the episode, another reshuffle removes him; leading the characters to comment that he can't have been moved somewhere less important than Assistant Minister for Infrastructure. Then the final scene shows he is now Assistant Minister to the Minister for Territories and Regions, and is giving a press conference from Norfolk Island, and still can't make it through the conference without being distracted.note 
  • Room Shuffle: If Tony really doesn't want to sit through a meeting with some other department, he tells Katie to come by in five minutes and make up an excuse to get him out. She generally screws it up.
  • Running Gag: People calling the NBA, "Nation Building Australia," as opposed to the Nation Building Authority. It even happens in their promotional DVD.
    • And the actual staff who work there.
    • After a Cabinet Reshuffle in season 2 it is renamed.
  • Sarcastic Title: The show is about the Nation Building Authority, a government agency charged with infrastructure projects intended to create a better Australia. Needless to say, the results are nowhere near a utopia.
  • Satire: ...Kind of.
  • The Scapegoat:
    • In 'The Blame Game", Jim and Rhonda repeatedly try to spin things to blame the NBA for a failed project even when presented with documented evidence that Tony had argued against it at every stage.
    • In "Grand Designs", the NBA gets the blame for a failed solar panel scheme, even though the bigger problem was the poorly-implemented website, which they had nothing to do with.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Tony pulls out his resignation letter twice during "Then We Can Build It" after getting fed up with Jim pushing yet another white elephant on the office instead of something the Tasmanians they consulted actually asked for. He doesn't go through with it, though.
    • He does eventually appear to be preparing to leave, winding down his responsibilities and handing many of them off to Nat.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Several episodes, but "Protected Species" most obviously.
  • Slogan-Yelling Megaphone Guy: Appears at a protest in "Wide Awoke": "What do we want?" "No wind farm!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" It eventually turns out that the wind farm they're protesting has nothing to do with the NBA, and they should have been protesting the building across the street.
  • With Due Respect: Exchanged between Tony and Beverly when he respectfully refuses to attend her "Respect in the Workplace" course and she respectfully asks him to reconsider. Katie comments on how "good at this" they are.