Sometimes, the feeling a drama gives you – the vibe of it – is everything. Some shows can look like they are shot on VHS and be full of ugly people standing still and talking, yet still carry you with them because of what, exactly, those people are saying. Others can have you on side with the way they look, the way they carry themselves, before you’ve worked out who they are or what they want.
Utopia (Tuesdays C4) is the second kind. Its first episode sat down, stared you out, blew smoke in your face, pushed all its chips into the middle. It opened with a multiple murder in a comics shop, a strangely pristine place full of high-contrast colours, where the killings were done with choreographed élan. Two of the victims semi-willingly pressed their faces into an oxygen mask that was not producing oxygen, so overawed were they (and we) by the bad guys: a cool one in a quiff and electric blue suit, and a shambling, sweaty one repeating “Where is Jessica Hyde?” like a fool.
We learned about the high nastiness threshold when we realised the last victim would be a small boy, although it was arguably worse seeing the cool killer tread his white leather shoe deliberately in a pool of blood. Utopia had a way with a casually disturbing image.
Soon it became clear – well, clear-ish – that the baddies were slaughtering anyone between them and the unpublished sequel to a cult graphic novel, which supposedly formed a coded manual to a deadly man-made disease. The shop had sold the manuscript to a bloke who, by visiting a web forum and inviting four posters there to view book two, put them in danger and gave us our main characters: young, resourceful, curious, lonely people, now thrown together. Some kind of global genetic-warfare conspiracy is going down; these guys are the bees who have got trapped in the car.
A subplot about a health department civil servant being blackmailed gave us Stephen Rea as a shady lobbyist, conjuring fear just by squeaking his overstuffed leather chair. Rea was a direct link to BBC2’s majestic Shadow Line, the series Utopia’s stylised confidence and complexity most calls to mind.
The Shadow Line’s first episode was so assured, so startlingly different, you knew it knew what it was doing. Utopia hasn’t quite achieved that – the cards it’s holding might still be junk – but it’s got the same gift for horribly memorable moments. An intruder stalking through a flat, played out in dead silence; a fantastic bad-sex encounter (creator Dennis Kelly’s previous TV hit was Pulling); and the instantly notorious torture scene all left a stamp on the screen. The torture – “Chillies. Sand. Bleach. A spoon” – was so unpleasant, imaginative and brutal, you had to laugh.
Channel 4’s other big drama of the week was on its little sister channel E4, because My Mad Fat Diary (Mondays) was about the agony of a teen whose struggle to be normal has made her sanity bend and break. Sharon Rooney was Rae Earl, whose real diary has been dramatised and moved from the 80s to 1996. The benefits of this weren’t obvious: it made 32 the ideal viewer age, which is a bit old for E4, you’d think, and it wasn’t a very careful period piece. Rae lusted after Archie, a hot geek whose spectacles, hair, speech (“Style it out!”) and ironic pop covers on choppy acoustic guitar were all completely 2012.
Rae emerged from psychiatric hospital and tried to make friends, with the twin stigmas of her medical history and her size representing the teenage shame of not being able to hide that you’re a freak. The “mad” and the “fat” were treated differently: Rae’s shape got her into harmless, cartoon embarrassments, like getting stuck halfway down a slide at a pool party, which were immediately forgiven by her suspiciously compassionate new mates. She was better at fitting in than some teens ever are. She got invited to a pool party!
Much more acute were the scenes in the hospital between Rae and her tiny tomboy friend Tix (Sophie Wright). When Rae lost her nerve and broke back into the ward, Tix was tenderly furious that she would think of giving in. That this reaction came from a deep affection, forged by having admitted their terrors to each other, was vividly conveyed by Rooney and Wright and a lot more affecting than the drunken scrapes and lagered Britpop soundtrack in the outside world. We need to get Tix out of there.
Brilliantly holding this Frank-Spencer-In-The-Bell-Jar mash together, though, was future star Sharon Rooney, totally convincing as a teen, as a soul determined to avoid self-destruction, and as the sort of wildly libidinous beast young females rarely are on TV. Rae was the hunter and Archie was the prey: “I’d shag him,” said Rae in one of the many salty inner monologues Rooney delivered with extra relish, “till there was nothing left except a pair of glasses and a damp patch.” My Mad Fat Diary would be better telly if all the best stuff wasn’t going on inside Rae’s head, but Rooney created a vibe in which you forgave that and wanted her to win.