Hulu and the producers behind “The Handmaid’s Tale” are starting to hold discussions about the future of the show, as it prepares to return to production for Season 5. Over the next few months, a decision will be made on whether this will be the show’s final season, as attention turns to sequel series “The Testaments” and how “Handmaid’s” feeds into it.
As it heads into its fifth season, “The Handmaid’s Tale” — currently Emmy-nominated for best drama, an award it won in 2017 — continues to grow in viewership for Hulu. In a world where streamers rarely share data, Hulu did confirm that viewership for Season 4, which concluded on June 16, was up 32% over Season 3. It was the most-watched series on Hulu every week throughout this past season (which launched in April), including both originals and non-originals, according to the streamer.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that the show’s intense finale — no spoilers here, but June (Elisabeth Moss) does something monumental — was the most-watched episode of any series on Hulu when it first dropped on June 16.
“’The Handmaid’s Tale’ is obviously the crown jewel of Hulu originals,” said Jordan Helman, head of scripted content for Hulu Originals. “At the moment, the writers are working away breaking Season 5. I think what’s really exciting about ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is that piece, year after year after year, sees viewership growth, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. We’re having conversations right now about what the future of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ holds. Also, how ‘The Testaments’ plays into that kind of larger strategy. What [executive producers] Bruce [Miller], Warren [Littlefield] and Lizzie [Moss] have delivered for us over the course of the past several years, really warrants a tremendous amount of trust both ways. And so I have the deepest belief that they’re going to come to us with a plan about how much longer the show needs to go on. And I’m certain that that would be a plan that we’re all on the same page about.”
Does that mean this upcoming season could be the show’s last? “I think that we’ll know more in the coming months,” he said. “If they came to us with the belief that this was the last season, I’m sure that would happen sooner rather than later. But again, there are a lot of conversations surrounding ‘Handmaids,’ especially in regards to how do we onramp ‘The Testaments’ into the larger world of Gilead. And again, it’s front of mind for all of us at Hulu and certainly for the producers.”
Timed to Hulu’s day at the virtual Television Critics Association press tour, Helman spoke to Variety for the first time in his new role, which was announced in June. He had previously been head of drama since 2015.
Among the announcements he and Hulu Originals/ABC Entertainment President Craig Erwich were set to announce on Friday: Fred Armisen and Jonathan Groff are among the executive producers behind “This Fool,” a new comedy based on the life of star and co-creator Chris Estrada. The stand-up comedian plays Julio Lopez, who still lives at home and manages to help others but not himself. The show follows Julio as he works at a gang-rehabilitation nonprofit and navigates his family and life in South Los Angeles. Estrada, Pat Bishop, Jake Weisman and Matt Ingebretson are executive producers on the ABC Signature show.
“Right as the pandemic started, we went on what I believe to be a really inspired creative run, with ‘Little Fires Everywhere,’ and ‘The Great’ and ‘Normal People’ and ‘Solar Opposites,’ tackling a myriad of genres in a way that seemed to really resonate with our viewers,” Helman said. “And then the world imploded. And it feels like we’re just starting to get back on track in regards to the output, both from a quality perspective, but also in terms of just quantity. We felt like we kind of had our legs chopped off in the middle of last year. And so, I think you look at the upcoming slate and it feels like, on the one hand, a real continuation of the work that we’ve been doing. But also an expansion into new worlds and to new audiences.”
Among Hulu’s major upcoming swings are the new comedy thriller “Only Murders in the Building” (Aug. 31), starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez; the limited series “Nine Perfect Strangers” (Aug. 18), from Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley; and the drama “Dopesick” (Oct. 13), from Danny Strong and exec producer/star Michael Keaton, about the opioid epidemic.
Here’s an edited look of more of our talk with Helman:
It’s been some time for the whole Disney new world order to settle out and figure out how it all works. Where does Hulu fit in?
I would say, the creative trajectory has remained largely unchanged. What’s been incredibly exciting over the past year and a half is that we’ve been given access to a roster of talent, throughout the Disney ecosystem, that is second to none. If you look at the shows that are premiering over the next several months, something like ‘Dopesick,’ or ‘Only Murders in the Building,’ probably only happens because of the nature of our Disney relationships. It’s an opportunity to do more with the best in class artists that we would have been chasing, regardless if we were in the Disney ecosystem.
What are your expectations for “Only Murders in the Building”?
This show is so beautifully, creatively realized. And feels unlike anything else on television. I find myself referring to it as a kind of “Hitchcockian comedy.” When you look at the success that we’ve had on the comedy side, it has largely been driven by next wave, slice-of-life POV shows. Whether that’s “Ramy” or “Pen15” or “Shrill.” And while we’re going to continue to ensure that we are platforming those kinds of artists on Hulu, I think “Only Murders in the Building” represents an evolution into bigger fare.
You just announced “Reboot,” a show about a show that is rebooted on Hulu. Very meta. Are you going to be in the show?
We haven’t had any discussions about who’s going to play me. But I was very enamored from the conceit when I heard it for the first time. When you sit in a curatorial chair, that my colleagues and I do, the notion of IP and the notion of reboots comes up. What I love about “Reboot” specific is that it’s really examining that from not only a place of kind of deep comedy, but also from a place that I think a lot of us in the business recognize as a bit of a conundrum.
Speaking of reboots and remakes, “How I Met Your Father” has gone through many iterations over the years. What’s the status?
We’ve got several scripts in, and we are shooting very soon. I think the reason that you decide to reboot or remake something is really driven by the artists who are going to bring it to life. And I think that Isaac [Aptaker] and Elizabeth [Berger] have delivered in a big way, not only for us in regards to “Love, Victor,” but certainly for the larger television viewing audience with “This is Us.” And I think that they’re taking the material and their passion, and their desire to really make it feel contemporary and deeply 2021, is what ultimately convinced us of how great an idea this is.
Hulu broke the Internet with those initial “Pam and Tommy” shots. How’s it looking?
We just wrapped production, I’ve seen the first three episodes. And I can’t tell you how incredibly excited we are to launch that piece into the world. I think you look at the conversation that arose around our Britney Spears doc earlier this year, the intention is that a similar dialogue will take place in the culture around this piece. I think people have a certain set of expectations in regard to what this is when they go into it. They’re going to walk away with a very different understanding of who the players involved were, what transpired and how we as a culture were complicit with that.
“Woke” is in the middle of production on Season 2, but has been forced to shut down at least three times due to COVID-19 cases. I’m sure this is a concern on all your shows. How is this being handled?
We’re back up and running on “Woke.” This is obviously an industry-wide issue. And I’m certain that this is going to sound like a talking point, but it’s the God’s honest truth. What is most important to us first and foremost, is the safety of our cast and crew. This is an ongoing conversation, and we are having discussions with the various guilds. We’re certainly following the direction of the experts in regards to day-to-day operationally, how to ensure that the shows are up and running while maintaining the safety of all involved.
“Pen15” is releasing a special animated episode on Aug. 27. Where did that idea come from?
Artists have had to be very adaptive in regards to the world that we’ve been living in over the course of the past year. And so Anna [Konkle] and Maya [Erskine] came to us with an idea to do this one-off as an animated piece. Clearly, they’ve delivered for us time and time again. And so when artists like Anna and Maya come to you and say, “I have a great idea,” oftentimes, the gig is to just say yes and get out of the way.
Any word yet on a Season 3 renewal for “Pen15”?
They’re back up and running on Season 2B at the moment, so I’m sure that Season 3 is further down kind of the mind’s eye of Anna and Maya. But “Pen15” is a signature show of ours on the comedy side. It is one of my personal favorites. And I think that as long Anna and Maya wanted to keep making the show, and felt like there was stories to tell, we would be very open into engaging in that conversation.
With the success of “Love, Victor,” are you exploring any other scripted shows centering on LGTBQIA+ characters, especially for a youth audience?
As it pertains to YA and coming of age fare in addition to “Love Victor,” we had a huge success last year with “Normal People.” I think “Tell Me Lies,” which we just announced this week, which kind of straddles the line between “Gossip Girl,” and “The Big Chill” is also an example of us expanding our offering in that space. And as it pertains to fare that is specifically targeted towards an LGBTQ audience, we’ll be announcing another pilot in the coming weeks that speaks to those stories and those themes. It remains an incredible area of opportunity for us that we will absolutely keep progressing toward.
How would you describe Hulu’s commitment to representation? I know you have coming up “Immigrant,” with Kumail Nanjiani, about the Indian American founder of the Chippendales.
It’s incredibly important to us that our programming reflects the nature of our audience that is currently on platform, but also the audience that makes up this country. And so in addition to “This Fool,” we also recently announced a pilot called “Olga Dies Dreaming” that we’re in the process of casting right now. We announced that the Aubrey Plaza and Ramon Rodriguez are going to be starring that piece. We are being very purposeful and thoughtful in regards to the overall portfolio of the slate and ensuring that we are speaking to a wide variety of audiences.
Mike Tyson was not happy with the idea of “Iron Mike.” Have you heard any more from him?
We have not heard anything more from Mr. Tyson. The writer room on that piece is open, and we’re excited to see what they come up with.
Where would you like to grow more programming? You’ve got “Solar Opposites,” are you looking at more adult animation?
I feel like we’ve firmly established ourselves in the drama and the live-action comedy space. Historically, adult animation has performed incredibly well on Hulu, which is what ultimately led to the development and green lighting of pieces like “Solar Opposites” and “Crossing Swords.” And I think that what we’ll see over the coming months, and certainly in the coming years, is a real doubling down in that arena.
What happened with the pickup of “The Orville”?
“The Orville” cuts are starting to come in. I don’t have a launch date to share with you yet. That project was impacted by COVID, as were all projects shooting last year. And so it’s taken a little bit of time to get on air. But what we’ve seen as far as, it’s really, really good.
Your other big play this summer is “Nine Perfect Strangers.” What are your expectations for that limited series?
I think if you look at the success that we’ve had previously with the likes of “The Act,” “Little Fires Everywhere” and “Normal People,” limited series have really become an incredible format. When Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley walk in the door with a Liane Moriarty novel, it felt tailor made for us. We have very high expectations of what that piece is going to do. And if you look over on the “Dopesick” side, Danny Strong and Warren Littlefield coming to us to tell a story that feels like it really needs to be told.