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TV reviews

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale 1×1-1×3 (US: Hulu; UK: Channel 4)

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 disasters 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.

What have you been watching? Including Return of the Mac, The Good Fight, Imposters and Doctor Who

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.

I’m back. <INSERT PERTINENT DOCTOR WHO QUOTE HERE>. 

Oddly, I haven’t missed much in my absence, since not many new shows have started, while plenty have wound up or have taken an Easter break. In fact, I’ve had the time to rewatch all of Marvel’s Iron Fist, as well as an episode of The Champions

Iron Fist actually held up quite well on a second viewing, although it turns out not to have any hidden depths at all that I missed and the fight scenes do often look quite bad on a bigger screen. But it’s still hugely enjoyable, the soundtrack’s truly marvellous, and it and season 1 of Daredevil are so far the only Netflix Marvel shows that I’ve even been inclined to rewatch.

Next up, of course, is Marvel’s The Defenders, which will be arriving in August during TMINE’s annual break. I presume it’s because they don’t want me to comment on the fact that Daredevil is wearing Iron Fist’s costume in the teaser trailer. Too late, boys. Too late.

As well as the regulars, I’ve also had time to play catch up on a few shows that I’d got behind on. That means that after the jump, I’ll be looking at the final episodes of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Good Fight and Imposters, as well as the latest episodes of The Americans and The Magicians, the return of Doctor Who and the back end of the second season of The Man in the High Castle.

Fortitude I’m now working on so I should have a round-up of the final episodes next week. I’ll also be a lot further along in Midnight Sun, which I’d probably have watched already if the upgrade to the Sky Go iOS app hadn’t resulted in the download rights on the whole series being revoked for some odd reason, meaning I couldn’t watch any of my previously downloaded episodes while I was away.

The Prison Break revival started while I was away, I know, but frankly, I suspect the show’s time has gone and I’ve had enough Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell of late on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, anyway.

Some time in the next few days, I’ll be taking a look at ABC (Australia)’s Hugo Weaving-starrer Seven Types of Ambiguity, which rather than being a documentary about literary criticism is a sort of Rashomon-ish look at a child abduction from the different points of view of all involved. However, awkwardly, as well as being only six rather than seven episodes long, each episode is from a different character’s perspective (I think), so I’m unsure whether I have to watch the whole thing or not.

I did try to watch The Son, AMC (US)’s mini-series Western that stars Pierce Brosnan. Potentially, it sounded quite interesting, with Brosnan playing an old Texan cattle baron during the First World War, while we get flashbacks to his life growing up among the Comanches as a boy after they kill his family. However, it’s AMC, so amazingly slow and boring, so I didn’t even make it through the first episode.

I also gave one other show a try:

Return of the Mac (US: Pop)
Yet another one of those TV shows in which celebrities play ‘themselves’ with hilarious results (cf Lopez, Donny!, et al), this sees former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre playing a version of himself who wants to do serious acting. Unfortunately, no one else wants him to do serious acting, so when he pitches with his agent to a female-led network, apart from the drooling by the 30- and 40-somethings who used to worship him when they were young, he has to endure the fact they only want to offer him a late night talk show. Can you imagine?

Produced by fellow New Kidder Donnie “Not Mark” Wahlberg and Jenny “Vaccines are Evil” McCarthy, who also cameo as “themselves”, the show struggles to do much beyond set up very easy jokes about reality TV, celebrities, McIntyre and his career, without coming close to even Donny!‘s low bar in finding a remotely interesting gimmick to supplement these low balls.

About the only thing it does well doesn’t even involve McIntyre, as it’s all about his wife’s work with a gloriously over the top stylist. January Jones cameos for all of a minute and is better than everyone else in the cast, despite being January Jones. That should tell you something.

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