Utopia Falls infuses sci-fi with hip-hop in a finely crafted teen drama

Utopia Falls -- "Can I Kick It" - Episode 102 -- Aliyah discovers a connection between The Archive and her late mother while an impromptu performance tests the patience of those in power. Aliyah (Robyn Alomar) and Bohdi (Akiel Julien), shown. (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/Hulu)
Utopia Falls -- "Can I Kick It" - Episode 102 -- Aliyah discovers a connection between The Archive and her late mother while an impromptu performance tests the patience of those in power. Aliyah (Robyn Alomar) and Bohdi (Akiel Julien), shown. (Photo by: Brooke Palmer/Hulu) /

The new Hulu drama Utopia Falls is Footloose meets The Hunger Games, with a helping of Snoop Dogg as the voice of a futuristic Siri.

As a genre, hip-hop has defined itself by its ability to shed light on inequality and social injustice through poetry. The body moves in sync with the layered rhythms as the mind digests the substance of the lyrics. The greats such as Notorious B.I.G., Grandmaster Flash, and The Roots possessed a keen understanding of the relationship between activism and entertainment. To inspire change, one must motivate the masses into action.

The new Hulu series Utopia Falls infuses sci-fi with hip-hop in a way that’s never been attempted on television. Set three hundred years in the future in the city of New Babyl, the show follows a group of teens as they compete in the society’s treasured Exemplar, a dance competition. For New Babyl, the arts are less about expression than conformity, with the Exemplar serving to reinforce the finely tailored status quo.

New Babyl divides its society into four sectors. Nature forms the agricultural backbone of the city, while Industry cares for its infrastructure. Progress focuses itself on research and science, as well as the governance of the state. Reform is the shadiest sector of the bunch, comprised of cast-offs from the other three who failed to live up to their duties.

For two of the students, Alitayah (Robyn Alomar) from Progress and Bodhi (Akiel Julien) from Reform, the Exemplar competition is thrown on its head when the two discover the Archive. Hidden in a mysterious bunker, the Archive is a large room filled with history, culture, and music of the world before New Babyl. Snoop Dogg serves as the voice of the Archive’s Siri-esque guide, who shows the young competitors what the world looked like back when music was supposed to provoke and inspire.

Utopia Falls does a good job of balancing plot and exposition. The politics of the various sectors is pretty intimidating at first, but the show doesn’t hinge any of its conflict on the audience’s ability to follow along with its more confusing elements. The world-building unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace, slowly revealing details about New Babyl and the Earth it inhabits across the full 10-episode first season screened for review.

As the voice of “The Archive,” Snoop Dogg is the show’s best asset early on, giving the premise a desperately needed-dose of levity. Utopia Falls can essentially be described as a cross between Footloose and The Hunger Games, a futuristic world where the arts serve as a scapegoat for the society’s broader problems it would rather not face head on. The dystopia genre is understandably fairly grim, but Snoop Dogg reminds the audience not to take things too seriously.

The soundtrack is top notch. Music from Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Nas ft. Diddy, and The Notorious B.I.G. among others help frame Utopia Falls’ protest message as running parallel to our current era. Snoop Dogg is an excellent curator of culture, linking the artists’ messages to the civil rights movement in a way that thoroughly makes the case for the power of music.

While the Exemplar competition drives the narrative for much of the season, the world of New Babyl has bigger concerns than a bunch of dancing teenagers. Utopia Falls does have a fair share of pacing issues early on, a narrative forced to juggle a large ensemble cast on top of a complex premise. The show starts to shine as it peels back the layers of the society’s broader problems, namely the efforts of the Progress politicians to stifle individual expression.

Alomar and Julien are excellent leads, with both receiving substantive story arcs across the show’s wide-ranging first season. Bodhi’s history in Reform provides a thorough examination of New Babyl’s clear issues with class conflict and injustice. Women occupy numerous positions of authority in the series, from head of the police force Phydra (Kate Drummond) to head of the tribunal Chancellor Diara (Alex Castillo). Utopia Falls has some compelling commentary on how a seemingly egalitarian political climate can still fall victim to the corrupting influence of power.

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What’s perhaps most impressive about Utopia Falls is the way it earnestly engages with social issues while still remaining true to its soapy core as a teen drama. The stakes are never meant to be as dire as the life and death dynamic in something like The Hunger Games. It’s a dance competition where teens are influenced by a computer program voiced by Snoop Dogg. The show never loses sight of its humorous premise even as it pushes itself to go deeper into its themes.

Utopia Falls carves out a niche for itself in a crowded genre. There’s no shortage of dystopian narratives out there, but the series uses hip-hop as a way to anchor its rebellious themes. With a diverse and inclusive cast, the first season covers a lot of ground while still leaving plenty on the table for the future. Utopia Falls also puts forth a great case for the theory that most things are better with Snoop Dogg, especially sci-fi.

All 10 episodes of the first season of Utopia Falls are out on Hulu, Friday, Feb. 14.