Hulu’s original series don’t just dabble in tricky topics — the streaming service’s shows are firmly rooted on the edge. The comedy “Deadbeat” fully owns its 4/20 aroma. Drama “The Path” invests deeply in exploring religion and faith. And if the upcoming “The Handmaid’s Tale” manages to echo its source material, the series should be a searingly feminist work.
Hulu gave a straight-to-series order on Friday to a show based on Margaret Atwood’s brilliant 1985 novel. The show, adapted by Bruce Miller (who, after writing for the CW’s “The 100,” is pretty familiar with dystopian societies and complicated female protagonists) will star “Mad Men” alumni Elisabeth Moss.
If you’re not familiar already with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s time to fix that. In the book, Atwood depicts a dystopian society in which infertility is an epidemic, and women now live under brutal patriarchal rule inspired by specific passages from the Bible.
The government has assigned Offred (to be played by Moss) to be a childless high-ranking couple’s vessel for a baby. But the character still remembers the free world into which she was born, and the daughter from whom she’s been separated. Offred’s desire to be reunited with her family conflicts with her very real desire to stay alive in this dangerous time, making her a uniquely sympathetic protagonist.
Offred isn’t a revolutionary willing to give up her life for the cause. She’s willing to make the compromises necessary to stay alive, forcing us to confront the fact that most of us wouldn’t make the brave choice in the face of death. Most of us would choose to keep breathing.
It’s the sort of internal conflict that should make for fascinating dramatic fuel, especially given Hulu’s approach to the project. This isn’t Hulu’s first book adaptation — the J.J. Abrams-produced “11.22.63,” based on the book by Stephen King, premiered earlier this year. But while “11.22.63” was billed as a miniseries with a closed ending, this is meant to be an ongoing series.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is actually well-built for this, because while it does have an ending, it’s relatively open-ended. And while the series is (as the title might suggest) one woman’s story, it takes place within a much larger universe — one aimed directly at attacking the oppression of women on a micro and macro level.
Ever since the book’s publication, “Handmaid” has often been held up as a cautionary tale, a reminder that women should never grow complacent about their reproductive rights. It’s not that people literally think the book’s exact scenario would occur, should Roe v. Wade be overturned (or if ongoing efforts to erode a woman’s access to abortions and birth control eventually reach a critical mass). The nightmare scenario presented by “The Handmaid’s Tale” is far more wide-ranging, depicting a world where women have been stripped of every basic right.
But by taking that “what if” to the furthest possible conclusion, Atwood captures something quite singular about the importance of abortion and birth control as women’s rights issues, which is why the connection is often made.
Though Atwood’s points go beyond feminism to a reflection of hard truths about humanity. “There is more than one kind of freedom… Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it,” one of the collaborating Aunts tells her handmaids-in-training in the novel. She presents the loss of choice as a welcome escape, as opposed to an act that dehumanizes one-half of the world’s population — and it’s an argument that one could, conceivably, imagine to be convincing.
This is just one of the fascinating concepts that Atwood finds a way to articulate as a writer. Her genius ultimately lies in making political issues personal and human. Even if Moss’s character is written out at the end of the first season for whatever reason, the show could theoretically continue on. But it’s also not hard to imagine Offred’s struggle driving several seasons worth of storytelling. Especially if Hulu allows the show to explore the ideological underpinnings that make a 31-year-old book still feel terrifyingly relevant.
Despite despite being in the game as long as Netflix and Amazon, Hulu has yet to succeed in creating original shows that grab awards and attention. But courting controversy is a way to solve the latter, and if the execution of “Handmaid’s Tale” proves compelling, it’s hard to imagine that awards won’t be on the table. “Handmaid’s Tale” won’t premiere until 2017, but this is the exact sort of ballsy move necessary to stand out in the television world. Consider this one at the top of our most anticipated list.