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Review: The Handmaid's Tale 1x1-1x3 (US: Hulu; UK: Channel 4)

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The Handmaid's Tale

In the US: Available on Hulu. New episodes available Wednesdays
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 4. Starts May 28, 9pm 

There's a point in any new TV channel's life when it has to find a show that justifies its existence. It doesn't matter whether the channel's online or broadcast, whether it's number 1 on the EPG or at www.best-tv-ever.com, no one will care about it or watch it rather than channel 6 or www.stupidest-tv-ever.com until that show arrives.

Of the new, big online broadcasters, Netflix obviously hit the big time straight away with House of Cards and that, combined with later hits such as Orange in the New Black and The Crown, has meant people have subscribed to it in vast numbers while overlooking such as hiccups as Bloodline. Amazon, meanwhile, arguably still hasn't quite had the success of Netflix, both creatively and commercially, but The Man In the High CastleThe Grand Tour and Transparent have at least put it on the map.

So what of Hulu? It's certainly been trying to establish itself as a player, although being US-only obviously lends itself to problems in terms of worldwide 'mindshare'. But Shut Eye, 11.22.63 and Chance haven't exactly set the US on fire, let alone the world.

The Handmaid's Tale could be the show that changes that.

It's based on arguably the feminist dystopia novel, Margaret Attwood's novel of the same name. The novel posits a near future in which an extreme branch of Christianity manages to take over the US and seeks to restore the country to its own brand of patriarchal dominance as the "Republic of Gilead". Women are banned from owning property and having jobs.  Instead they must become subservient to men as housewives, known colloquially as 'Marthas'. Because fertility rates have been in decline for decades, the few remaining fertile women are enslaved as 'Handmaids' and given to important families to produce babies through ritualised rape by the husbands. To keep them in line, a strict re-education programme is introduced run by 'Aunts', who teach the correct, godly, Biblical way of living - although notably, the bit about 'the meek inheriting the Earth' is omitted and other Christian denominations that disagree are crushed by Gilead.

Narrated by one Handmaid, Offred ('Of Fred' - her owner), The Handmaid's Tale is basically a nightmare collage of women's fears about political tendencies in the US, married with current conditions for women in Saudi Arabia, that more or less every generation of American woman who reads it finds it all too plausible.

This adaptation by Bruce Miller (Eureka, The 100) is both loose and faithful to the book - certainly more faithful than the 1990 version, ostensibly scripted by Harold Pinter, which ditched many things, including Offred's narration.

This Gilead is set in the very near future indeed, reinstating both the novel's narration and flashbacks to show us Offred (Elisabeth Moss - The West Wing, Mad Men, Top of the Lake) both before and after becoming a Handmaid and how Gilead emerged from the modern US. However, with Attwood's novel being a reasonably thin tome, even the first three episodes don't really touch on the book's overall plot, only set up the boundaries of the society and introduce us to the main characters: Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), his Martha (Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski), fellow Handmaids Ofglen (Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel) and Ofwarren (Orange is the New Black's Madeline Brewer), and the Commander's driver Nick (Max Minghella).

Here the show does a very good job. There are nuances - rather than a simple black and white depiction, the show highlights how pretty much everyone suffers under the system in one way or another, and that Commander Fred would rather be playing Scrabble with Offred than anything else. You can see how Offred and others might get Stockholm Syndrome and sublimate the system. Gilead's emergence is all too plausible, more so perhaps than in either the novel or the book since the projected ecological diasters are already here, and the Trump White House is currently rolling back all manner of women's rights - we're all just one major terrorist attack away from Gilead. Scenes of riots and protests could have taken place a couple of months ago.

It also fleshes out Gilead, emphasising that as well as women's rights, LGBT rights are gone. Indeed, just as being a 'gender traitor' can be punished by death, so too can being Jewish or from any other Christian denomination. Ofglen, who dies very quickly in the book, is now a major character and is used to explore these new rules.

It's all hugely claustrophobic and terrifying, being about as timely as 24 was in its day (although obviously very differently).

Nevertheless, spreading the novel out of an entire season (and beyond, since the show was renewed for a second season today) reduces the overall effect of the piece, since there's not quite enough plot left in these three episodes to have as much impact as it could. Gilead's oppressive nature and beliefs are a plausible extrapolation of 80s America, but this is a future seemingly without technology, our own society already constantly observed, yet Handmaids are able to wander and plot unheard and unwatched by anyone - even if they find it hard to know whom to trust.

And while, of course, an allegory is an allegory and a wake-up call needs to shout to be heard, it does all feel like a liberal Canadian's view of what an oppressive regime taking over the US would look like - there are no Democrats exercising their second amendment rights against an overbearing government here. Some shots fired by men in black and that's that. The rest of the world? Who knows what that's up to…

But The Handmaid's Tale is both an impressive statement piece by Hulu and an excellent piece of feminist dystopian sci-fi/fantasy that focuses on the personal and highlights the perils for those enjoying the messy society in which we currently live of taking rights for granted. It's not easy viewing, but it is worth it.

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