Hulu has struggled to break through into the Emmy arena so far, as shows like “Casual” and “The Path” have failed to translate with voters. Meanwhile other streamers like Netflix (“House of Cards”) and Amazon (“Transparent”) continue to boast flagship series that are consistently recognized by the TV Academy.
But all of that could change with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” showrunner Bruce Miller’s bleak and anxiety-inducing (given the political climate) adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel. Telling the story of a near-future theocratic military dictatorship, the show effortlessly feeds on contemporary socio-political angst, with the Trump regime continuing to play the role of boogeyman for many as a perceived threat to human rights.
The story also serves a feminist agenda with its depiction of female subjugation. Those involved with the show, including Atwood and star Elisabeth Moss, have suggested that such a label is limiting, leading to debate as to whether that element is being downplayed. But Moss later clarified, and director Reed Morano — who helmed the first three episodes of the 10-part series — threw in her two cents on Instagram earlier this week.
“There is no debate,” Morano wrote. “IT IS FEMINIST. IT IS POLITICAL. It’s also about men (imagine that?) and women and children and LGBT and blacks and whites — crazy concept, right? It’s about how NO ONE is safe if any one single group’s rights start being stripped away. It WILL eventually affect us all … You might want to watch simply to find out what’s to come, if we all don’t get off our asses and do something.”
All of that is to point out that, clearly, “The Handmaid’s Tale” taps into the zeitgeist like no other show in the mix this season. Contenders like “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Veep,” “Atlanta,” and “Black-ish” wrangle with current events in their own ways, but none are so potent as this program and its implications.
That kind of thing can be catnip in an awards season. The platform of Emmy or Oscar recognition is a significant one for messaging, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” has one doozy of a cautionary exploration to offer.
Moss’ performance is brilliant and textured, calling on an arsenal of talent to depict a woman ripped from a free society and plunged into the totalitarian horrors of one in which a ruling class maintains a certain sect of women (handmaids) for reproductive purposes. A seven-time Emmy nominee for her work on “Mad Men” and “Top of the Lake,” she has yet to win. Pulling it off now might be a tall order with stiff competition from Claire Foy (“The Crown”), but few performances in the field are as exciting and fresh as hers. And if Tatiana Maslany’s surprise victory last year showed us anything, it’s that voters aren’t necessarily on autopilot.
Giving a properly chilly performance as villainess Aunt Lydia is the consistently great character actor Ann Dowd (“The Leftovers”). Complicit in the regime, charged with indoctrinating the handmaids with the beliefs of the new republic, Aunt Lydia is a looming menace even when she’s not on screen. But Dowd has never been duly recognized for her film or TV work. She famously self-funded a SAG screener campaign on behalf of her performance in the 2012 film “Compliance” when Magnolia Pictures opted out of doing so because the movie was a loss for the distributor. But here she delivers some of her finest work to date, and it’s a performance that — should the series catch fire with voters — could be brought into the mix as well.
The crafts work throughout is accomplished, from rich cinematography to compelling editing decisions, but in particular, the show’s creative use of music could stand out in a new category dedicated to music supervision. That field already promises to be an exciting one, with shows like the Grammy-nominated “Stranger Things,” hip-hop history primer “The Get Down” and FX’s hit comedy “Atlanta” crowding in for recognition.
But more to the point, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is simply the most promising player Hulu has had on its hands since moving into the original content business. It’s a significant breakthrough waiting to happen, and should the TV Academy take notice, it will no doubt augur well for the streamer’s future in the prestige/awards racket.