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Where TV Meets Margaret Atwood: I Come Not to Bury ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ but to Praise It
June 20, 2017  | By Alex Strachan
 

Predicting TV awards is a fool’s game at the best of times, but this year’s just-announced shortlist for the 33rd Annual Television Critics Association Awards (to be presented Aug. 5 at the Beverly Hills Hilton) is not just a window into the TV industry as it stands today but also a window into where we are as a society.

The Handmaid’s Tale (top), Bruce Miller’s by turns harrowing and hypnotic adaptation of the classic 1985 Margaret Atwood novel about a future dystopia in which women are legally, officially, and dutifully subservient to men, leads the critics’ honor roll with a field-leading four nominations, tied with the fresh first-year FX comedy Atlanta and freshman NBC drama This Is Us.

Four nominations is telling because, unlike the hundreds of categories from which to pick and choose at the Emmy Awards, the TCA Awards are limited to just 10 categories overall, not including the legacy awards for individual career achievement and the Heritage Award, each year bestowed on a past TV classic that both changed the TV landscape and, more importantly, the culture at large.

The Handmaid’s Tale is nominated for outstanding achievement in drama, new program, individual achievement in drama — Elisabeth Moss (right), for her head-turning dual role as June Osborne, before the fall and Offred, aka “of Fred,” after the fall — and, crucially, program of the year.

Program of the year is the TCA category that most aptly reflects the feel of the times and sows the ground for future Heritage Awards. Handmaid’s Tale aside, the other candidates for 2017’s program of the year include the aforementioned Atlanta, and This Is Us, along with Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s Big Little Lies and The Leftovers.

Worthy programs all — though personally, I would also have found room for OJ: Made in America, Planet Earth II, Better Call Saul, and Fargo.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the one that jumps out at me, though, and not just because of the political tone of the times we live in. Hard to watch at times — I’m not enamored of it as entertainment television the way I am about Game of Thrones and Curb Your EnthusiasmThe Handmaid’s Tale is nonetheless the kind of TV drama that demands one’s attention and makes one think, if not always pleasant thoughts.

Hate crimes, honor killings, female genital mutilation and how much we’re willing to forego our personal freedoms in the service of a supposedly orderly, safe and secure future are just some of the themes at work in what is one of the most distinctive, visually arresting and subversive small-screen dramas to emerge in recent years.

Writer-producer Bruce Miller and his overseers at the Hulu streaming service have been wise not to slavishly stick to every detail of Atwood’s novel — TV is a different storytelling medium, after all, which more than a few die-hard fans of the original Game of Thrones novels haven’t quite grasped yet. 

An op-ed writer in the UK Guardian recently took the TV adaptation to task for not being more faithful to Atwood’s novel, but Atwood herself has already given it her tacit seal of approval, by appearing in the pilot episode as an apparatchik inclined to hit any young handmaid who doesn’t do as she’s told by her societal masters.

Atwood has said her original novel was inspired by the 1978-Iranian revolution and the US Christian right, but the contemporary adaptation seems more driven by religious cults in the US south, Putin’s Russia and the pogroms against the LBGT community in Chechnya and the intolerance inherent in religious extremism, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish. (Yes, even Buddhists, as recent events in Myanmar have demonstrated.)

In its TV guise, The Handmaid’s Tale has been called a warning to women, all women — conservatives as well as liberals — as well as to young people who might be complacent about recent and not-so-recent hard-won gains in civil rights and such basic, generally accepted values as equal pay for equal work and a woman’s right to choose.

It is tough to watch, as it should be, from the officially sanctioned public hangings of gay men — homosexuality, loosely defined as “gender treachery” in Atwood’s vision of a hellish future, is punishable by death — to a mob of handmaidens goaded to attack and physically tear apart a man accused of rape. As the perceptive arts writer Rebecca Nicholson noted in a Guardian op-ed piece earlier this month, The Handmaid’s Tale is claustrophobic viewing precisely because it feels so recognizable.

Hulu has already renewed The Handmaid’s Tale for a second season, regardless of how it fares at the TCA Awards, or this summer’s Emmys, for that matter. Moss, a veteran of Mad Men and The West Wing, is poised to become the defining actress of her generation, with a new season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake to bow on the Sundance Channel in September. (Top of the Lake’s second season, all six episodes, was screened in its entirety at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, this past May.)

The reality of TV production — churn out the scripts, one after another and rush into production as quickly as possible — means it’s only a matter of time before the TV adaptation veers more broadly and pointedly away from its original source material. Atwood readers already complaining about the ways Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale has diverted from the original are only going to grow more disillusioned.

In the larger, wider world, the TV adaptation of  Handmaid’s Tale has already made its mark, though. It has done something very rare for television — even in this platinum age of fine small-screen drama. It has sparked a public conversation about everything from why voting matters — and how each vote counts — to the way communities vulnerable to oppression, for whatever reason, must stay vigilant and dig in against complacency.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not my favorite TV drama of the year. Not even close.

It might well be the most important, though.

If ever there was a “Program of the Year,” this is it. I don’t know if The Handmaid’s Tale will win the TCA Award for program of the year. I suspect it will, but suspecting something is not the same as knowing.

I know which program I’ll be voting for, though.

THE TELEVISION CRITICS ASSOCIATION 2017 TCA AWARD NOMINEES

Below is the list of the 2017 Television Critics Association nominees, excluding the Career Achievement and Heritage Award winners, which will be announced on the night of the awards.

INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT IN DRAMA
Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us NBC
Carrie Coon, The Leftovers & Fargo HBO & FX
Claire Foy, The Crown Netflix
Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies HBO
Jessica Lange, Feud: Bette And Joan FX
Elisabeth Moss, The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
Susan Sarandon, Feud: Bette and Joan FX

INDIVIDUAL ACHIEVEMENT IN COMEDY

Pamela Adlon, Better Things FX
Aziz Ansari, Master of None Netflix
Kristen Bell, The Good Place NBC
Donald Glover, Atlanta FX
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep HBO
Issa Rae, Insecure HBO
Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag Amazon

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN NEWS AND INFORMATION

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee TBS (2016 Winner in Category)
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver HBO
The Lead With Jake Tapper CNN
O.J.: Made in America ESPN
Planet Earth II BBC America
Weiner Showtime

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN REALITY PROGRAMMING

The Circus Showtime
The Great British Baking Show PBS
The Keepers Netflix
Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath A&E
Shark Tank ABC
Survivor: Game Changers CBS

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN YOUTH PROGRAMMING

Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood PBS (2016 Winner in Category)
Doc McStuffins Disney Junior
Elena of Avalor Disney Channel
Odd Squad PBS
Sesame Street HBO
Speechless ABC

OUTSTANDING NEW PROGRAM

Atlanta FX
The Crown Netflix
The Good Place NBC
The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
Stranger Things Netflix
This Is Us NBC

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN MOVIES, MINISERIES AND SPECIALS

Big Little Lies HBO
Fargo FX
Feud: Bette and Joan FX
Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Netflix
The Night Of HBO
Wizard of Lies HBO

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN DRAMA

Better Call Saul AMC
Stranger Things Netflix
The Americans FX (2015 & 2016 Winner in Category)
The Crown Netflix
The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
This Is Us NBC

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN COMEDY

Atlanta FX
black-ish ABC (2016 Winner in Category)
Fleabag Amazon
Master of None Netflix
The Good Place NBC
Veep HBO

PROGRAM OF THE YEAR
Atlanta FX
Big Little Lies HBO
Stranger Things Netflix
The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
The Leftovers HBO
This Is UsNBC
 
 
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for $20. (Paperback will be available September 5th, here.)

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post

 

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