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TV Review: Utopian level of tense drama

Utopia (Channel 4) Dallas (Channel 5) -- SOME dramas are considered so potentially disturbing that the broadcaster feels it necessary to give viewers an advance warning about the content. The third episode of Utopia required two: one before the programme began and another after the final ad break.

The first one, in particular, was justified. We should be used to Utopia's shock opening, yet I doubt anyone would have been expecting a school shooting, especially coming so soon after the horrifying events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

In a stark prologue, executioner Arby (Neil Maskell) calmly wanders through a primary school, blankly shooting dead every child he sees. Though there was no graphic violence, the gunshots, gun-flashes and the sound of terrified children's screams made for a genuinely unsettling experience.

Whether it was dramatically justifiable is debatable; it's conceivable the scene could have been toned down or filmed in a different way. Then again, to do that would have been to betray the whole tone, the whole atmosphere of dread, menace and simmering violence that Utopia had spent the previous two hours carefully establishing.

In an overheated climate where the BBC was forced to issue an apology for repeating a years-old episode of The Tweenies in which one of the characters dons a "blond" wig and pretends to be a DJ, there's bound to be complaints and a flood of furious columns from the usual newspaper suspects.

It would be a shame, however, if it overshadows everything else, because Utopia is a staggeringly great piece of television. Creator/writer Dennis Kelly and director Marc Munden have fashioned a dazzling conspiracy-thriller puzzle set in an amoral, hyper-real, paranoia-drenched world that's as skewed and woozy as a bad dream.

There are times when the labyrinthine story momentarily snakes out of your grip -- especially that portion of it involving beleaguered, blackmailed civil servant Dugdale (Paul Higgins), who last night found himself despatched to Shetland by his boss to snip the finger from a victim of the Russian 'flu outbreak repellent .

I think that's deliberate. Utopia is the kind of series where you have to watch closely and listen hard. It's destined to enjoy a long afterlife on boxset, where the subtle, fleeting elements can be forensically picked apart.

In the meantime, the plot thickened. Without giving too much away, The Network, using some digitally fabricated CCTV footage, pinned Arby's rampage on 11-year-old Grant (Oliver Woollford), who's in possession of the sought-after graphic novel manuscript and under the protection of the icily ruthless Jessica Hyde (Fiona O'Shaughnessy).

While the broader scenario didn't advance much, something of Arby's background was revealed. The Network's Letts (Stephen Rea, who can do effortlessly creepy better than almost anyone) suggested the organisation has had its hooks in Arby, who appears to have been chemically conditioned to a be a killer, from childhood. "You arrived as part of a consignment from Bulgaria," he teasingly tells him.

Jessica may have more in common with Arby than anyone knew. She too seems to have been conditioned to kill without conscience. Her response to the school shooting is: "It's a handful of kids, so what?"

Utopia is as baffling and demanding as it is engrossing. But since when has drama that requires you to use your brain as well your eyes been a bad thing? Fabulous television.

In his 1980s heyday, JR Ewing never let anything stand in the way of his grubby goals. The producers of the revived Dallas, back for a second series, haven't let Larry Hagman's death stand in their way, either.

There's something poignant and a little ghoulish about watching the dying Hagman's final scenes (he appears for at least five episodes). When he departs, there'll no longer be any reason to endure this vapid, appallingly-written, woodenly-acted trash.

Utopia 5/5

Dallas 1/5