Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale drama series drops in April, just in time for prime Emmy consideration. How can the series sneak into contention?
On April 26, Hulu will release The Handmaid’s Tale. The drama series hails from the celebrated novel by Margaret Atwood about a handmaid named Offred (as in belonging to “Fred”) stuck in Gilead – a rebranded Cambridge, Massachusetts, following a successful overthrow of the American government. Religious fanatics dominate this society, one that stripped all women of their basic rights. They cannot own property or possess currency or hold a paying job. Women are merely wives or servants or whores or, perhaps worst of all, vessels for semen and procreation. Reduced to biology. Atwood published the original novel back in 1985 during the height of the Reagan era, and the material remains incredibly relevant today.
This year, Donald Trump took office on January 20. On January 21, millions of women and those who supported them marched in cities across the world. They donned their “pussy hats” and proudly carried protest signs. The news looked like nothing we’d seen since the Civil Rights era in the late 60s. People protested in The Handmaid’s Tale too. Until they were shot down. Then, shit got bad. Real bad.
The recent trailer offer this voice-over from Offred (Elisabeth Moss): “I was asleep before, that’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then either. Now I’m awake.”
In the face of such political resonance (more on that later), how can the Television Academy ignore the power of The Handmaid’s Tale? My head tells me too many shows sit in front of it, but my gut, my heart, tells another story. On last week’s Water Cooler Podcast, fellow Emmy watcher and friend Erik Anderson inferred that I’m banking too heavily on the show. Maybe. My heart leads me astray as often as it rewards me.
So, will The Handmaid’s Tale win major Emmy nominations in July? That’s a difficult question to answer since the property is largely sight unseen, although Hulu has scheduled multiple high-profile screenings in support. Traditionally, Emmy doesn’t respond well to freshman upstarts, but somehow this feels different. I’m convinced a path forward exists for a Drama Series Emmy nomination.
A wide-open field for Drama Series
This year, Emmy-winner Game of Thrones and perennial nominee Downton Abbey won’t factor into the major races. The Abbey closed its doors, and Game of Thrones premieres in the summer outside of the 2017 Emmy eligibility window. That frees two slots of last year’s nominees from the available seven Drama Series nominees. If we talk political resonance, The Americans seems destined to repeat last year’s series-first Drama nomination, if not outright win. Trump and his Russian connections dominate current political events, giving FX’s critically acclaimed series resonance that other series simply can’t match. Plus, it’s just a really great show.
Next, AMC’s Better Call Saul feels like a repeat contender after a favorable guild reaction this winter and a Emmy-friendly April Season 3 premiere date. House of Cards is a bit riskier. Already accused of elaborate soapiness, it competes with political reality, and who the hell can complete with that? Plus, it drops the day before the nomination window closes. People will binge the hell out of it, of course. It needs to be smarter/bigger/better than the headlines to make that fifth Drama Series nomination. I think that’s likely, but it’s not a slam dunk.
Assuming that gives us three, we have to assess Mr. Robot. Season 2’s early reviews quickly became raves as creator Sam Esmail took the director’s reigns for the entire season. Still, the wild story and sense of sophomore slump turned viewers off. Need proof? Season 2 saw a 50 percent drop in average viewers. Of the returning Drama Series nominees, Mr. Robot appears the most vulnerable, and NBC Universal feels it. The cast and creative are out like never before, beating the pavement to push the series back into the top seven. Right now, Mr. Robot teeters on the edge of Emmy.
So, let’s say we have three confirmed: The Americans, Better Call Saul, and House of Cards. The Handmaid’s Tale has to be seen as better than Mr. Robot, Stranger Things, This Is Us, The Crown, and Westworld to break in. Stranger Things and This Is Us both appear to be massive culture phenoms. It’s in their favor that literally no one saw them coming as viable Emmy contenders. Netflix’s Emmy campaigning gets nominations, if not wins, so Stranger Things feels like a likely entry. That’s four confirmed.
This Is Us is the emotional wildcard coming from a network that hasn’t had a Drama Series nomination since Heroes. It wins the social media battle (don’t get on Twitter when This Is Us is on), but does that translate into Emmy votes? I’d be 100 percent behind it if had received that SAG nomination for the cast. Who else would push this actor-driven, large cast series forward? Still, the show will become the rallying cry for those working in network television tired of cable and streaming series dominating the Emmys. That plus the massive fan base pushes it forward.
That gives us five. Two slots for The Crown, Westworld, and The Handmaid’s Tale. The Crown hails from Emmy-hungry Netflix, receives the backing of critics and guilds, and fills that British drama slot. It’s in. So, it’s down to two dystopian (tired of that word yet?) shows with similarly negative views of women and the future. How can The Handmaid’s Tale beat Westworld to the top seven?
A political powerhouse
Is The Handmaid’s Tale just a book or a television drama? Or is there more to it?
Today, as women’s health services – Planned Parenthood chief among them – face extinction thanks to federal defunding, women continue the fight for basic control of their own bodies. Health care access. Equal pay for equal work. The right to be President of the United States. It becomes increasingly difficult to surf headlines or watch reports on television and not equate modern politics to the supposed fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale. The parallels between the novel and reality remain impossible to ignore.
We live in an era where Hillary Clinton almost shattered the glass ceiling for women in politics. Did you hear that sound? That tinkling of shattered glass falling to the ground? That’s not the sound of that shattered ceiling. That’s the sound of the millions of hearts broken as the more qualified, female candidate lost to… well, you know the story. It’s a story many are unwilling to relive because, frankly, they’re still living it. The wounds from Bernie v. Hillary v. The Donald have yet to heal. We’re not ready for that movie yet. At least, I’m not.
However, there is a certain sense of gratification or morbid attraction to a piece of dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale in an era such as ours. There’s a reason everybody all of a sudden rediscovered George Orwell’s 1984. It’s the same reason that people will gravitate toward The Handmaid’s Tale bleak sense of future trauma. We want to wallow in the misery. Need to point to something that illustrates our sense of outrage, of indignation that THIS happened. Need warning signs and evidence of What Could Happen if we’re not paying attention. Many will tell you we’re there already.
For others, The Handmaid’s Tale provides a classic political horror story to galvanize the opposition to the status quo. People need to remain focused on making progress and maintaining rights for all. The Handmaid’s Tale becomes a shining beacon as to how quickly we could go wrong.
You think I’m reaching? Read the book. Watch the series. The steps are there, folks. Margaret Atwood saw it back in 1985. We’ve forgotten or ignored the past, and where we’re headed is dark indeed.
Those criminally overlooked actresses
Hollywood struggles with diversity. Not just ethnicity but also in terms of gender diversity. 2016 provided a thirst-quenching oasis when a film like Arrival – a brilliant story entirely told from a woman’s perspective – received 8 Oscar nominations. The Handmaid’s Tale was once a film, but critics and audiences ignored it. Television, however, adores women. It adores women of all ages and ethnicities. Television gives women roles of lifetimes, characters so rich and powerful as to elevate even the weakest of material.
How To Get Away With Murder. Grey’s Anatomy. Empire. The Expanse. The Good Fight. Big Little Lies. Westworld. American Crime. Shots Fired. Feud: Bette and Joan. American Horror Story: Roanoke. The Crown. Black Mirror. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
These shows range in quality, obviously, but they all give us female characters for the ages played by actresses often doing career-best work. The Handmaid’s Tale likely rises to the top of that bunch because it features three great actresses. Great actresses who, by the way, built up extensive good will with voters in previous Emmy-worthy series.
Star Elisabeth Moss never won an award for her work on Mad Men. Never. Won. A. Single. Award. We watched as her Peggy Olson rose up the advertising corporate ladder to become an incredibly complex and (shock) not particularly likable character. And that’s fantastic. Toss in some awards attention for her performance in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, and you have a case for an underrated actress overdue for Emmy attention.
Samira Wiley broke onto the scene in Orange Is the New Black and became an unexpected fan favorite. After a buzzy Season 4 arc (no spoilers), she needs to prove she can deliver more than the tough prison lesbian with a poet’s heart. What better way to jump start that career than a role as a tough lesbian forced into heterosexual relations? Type-casting? Maybe but I bet it works, particularly since it’s a nice example of colorblind casting in a role that easily could have gone to a bigger name white or straight actress. No one would consider Wiley “overdue” for awards attention, but her immense good will from Orange Season 4 adds to Handmaid’s cache.
Ann Dowd. Is there another actress so criminally underrated as the great Ann Dowd? Enormously fun and brilliantly acted character work peppers her resume. Masters of Sex. The Leftovers. True Detective. Quarry. Those shows provide her best roles of the past few years. Her role as “Aunt Lydia” in The Handmaid’s Tale tops them all. Hers is a role in which she will sink every last tooth. Easily a candidate for Supporting Actress in a Drama, Ann Dowd provides that go-to cache for quality. She’s always great, and she lends The Handmaid’s Tale even more gravitas given her reputation and conviction.
The Handmaid’s Tale may strip women of their rights as human beings, but these three actresses propel the story forward into heavy awards consideration. They give the audience a better entry point than the similarly themed but nearly impenetrable The Man in the High Castle. Still, an Emmy play won’t materialize if the overall property isn’t of high quality, so…
It has to be great
I’ve seen a small portion of the premiere episode. Not enough to judge the overall quality, of course, but enough to know the series will be in contention. Yet, in this continued Golden Era of Great Television, a television show must be more than buzzy. It must be bigger than its cast or creative. The direction must be 100 percent on-point. The writing must be stellar. All elements must come together without flaw. The competition for Drama Series remains a gladiator fight to the death thanks to the overwhelming array of great television laid out for the Television Academy to choose.
The Handmaid’s Tale will air 8 episodes by the close of the Emmy voting window on May 31. The first season finale airs during the first week of the Emmy nomination voting period. There will be ample evidence and opportunity for success, but the show has to earn it. Critics have to be behind it. It must become a part of the television lexicon in the early Summer. Political resonance – trading the “pussy hats” for white blinders – gets it halfway there. It just needs to be great television.
Ultimately, that is how The Handmaid’s Tale can enter the final seven nominees for Outstanding Drama Series. Can it do it? Absolutely. It just has to be good enough to earn it.
Will it? We shall see.