Show You Should Be Watching If You Aren’t Already: The Handmaid’s Tale

This weekend you could turn on your TV  to watch a totalitarian regime use self-serving but ostensibly biblical rationale to oppress women, the LGBT community, intellectuals and others – or you could turn the news off, flip over to Hulu and watch the first five episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. We suggest the latter.

If you aren’t familiar with Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, you won’t need to know much before you watch the Hulu series. Creator Bruce Miller wonderfully establishes the setting and reveals information at a pace that will answer all your questions in time. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts life in Gilead, a quasi-biblical military dictatorship established in the former United States after the constitution was suspended sometime in the near future. With the birth rate drastically low, low-status fertile women are assigned to Commanders as “Handmaids” to bear their children if the commander’s wife is unable to conceive. There’s no real choice in the matter: the other option is to get shipped off to the “colonies” and clean up nuclear waste. The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her experiences with her commander (Joseph Fiennes), his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and fellow Handmaids (Alexis Bledel [Ofglen], Madeline Brewer [Janine], Samira Wiley [Moira]).

The Handmaid’s Tale Is So Timely It Will Scare You

Since Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, it’s always had unsettling echoes of reality … but sometimes it’s extra prescient. In 1985 America was experiencing the rise of the Moral Majority – a far-right backlash to developments both negative (the rise of street drugs, the growth of the AIDS epidemic) and positive (the gains made by the ’70s Gay Liberation Movement and the reproductive rights developments in Griswold v. Connecticut  and Roe vs. Wade). The back-and-forth between periods of social progress and reactionary periods of regression are familiar to anyone who’s opened a history book. An adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale probably would have been well-received in the 90s or early 2000s, but the Hulu adaptation feels almost necessary now. With news stories about an Oklahoma bill requiring a man’s permission to get an abortion, the commodification of children in unethical surrogacy and adoption contracts, and gay men being rounded up into camps in Chechnya, it’s not hard to envision a future like Gilead.

In the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood makes it clear that not long has passed between its 1980s publication and the establishment of Gilead– she refers to cassette tapes, 1950s military surplus and 1970s magazines all still in existence. Likewise, the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the near future: in flashbacks to Offred and Moira’s recent past, there are references to Tinder, Uber and Craigslist. If Gilead looks familiar it’s because it should – Atwood has commented that everything that happens in The Handmaid’s Tale has already happened somewhere in the world. Even smaller details are accurate, such as the Handmaids’, wives’ and Marthas’ (housekeeper/cook/maid) old-timey outfits —  they’re spot-on when you look deep into the trenches of some Christian Fundamentalist movements or the FLDS church, where womens’ wardrobes are a kind of Little House throwback.

The Handmaid’s Tale Is Probably Going To Win All The Acting Awards

… or at least it should. If you watched Mad Men you already know that Elisabeth Moss can do everything, but if not we’re letting you know: Elisabeth Moss can do everything. She seamlessly switches from young, carefree Offred, to Offred as a Handmaid concealing her distaste for the regime, at once defiant and compliant. Moss excels both in scenes without dialogue and in voice-overs (I especially enjoyed the voiceovers after re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale and getting to the epilogue — no spoilers, but I forgot about that part). Joseph Fiennes is just as the Commander should be: he’s clearly part of the regime, but you can’t help but have some questions about him. Yvonne Strahovski is delightfully icy as Serena Joy. I admit that when I read The Handmaid’s Tale I was expecting something a little more Tammy Faye Bakker, but she’s actually perfect for a 2017 version. I can just picture Serena Joy as the Pinterest-perfect upper-class housewife before Gilead.

The real revelation, though, is Alexis Bledel as Ofglen. We’re both longtime, reunion-panel-attending Gilmore Girls fans, but having only seen Alexis as Rory I didn’t really know what range she is capable of. In one instant you can see why Offred believes that Ofglen is totally sold on the Gilead lifestyle, and in the next you understand that Ofglen is a rebel. Ofglen is both unbreakable and quietly devastated, and Alexis’s innocent appearance is used to better end here than it is in Gilmore Girls; as Vanity Fair noted, “she’s less Bambi here and more trapped bird.”

For what it’s worth, in my notes I wrote “somebody should have told me Samira Wiley was in this,” so I’m telling you now. If Poussey was one of your favorites in Orange Is The New Black, you’ll absolutely love Samira as the ebullient Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale. If Moira’s character in the Hulu series has the same outcome as Moira in the novel, I can’t wait to see it, but at least through episode 5 she is seen only in flashbacks.

The Handmaid’s Tale Works Really, Really Well As A Show

Many books suffer in film adaptations, and I think even more suffer in television adaptations. However, the Hulu limited series is the perfect way to adapt The Handmaid’s Tale. The format has allowed for expanded stories of some of the characters — for instance, Ofglen has a bigger backstory and a different fate in the show; we have filled in Moira and Offred’s history, but there is still more of Moira’s future to come as of episode 5. Although some characters have been altered or expanded on a bit, every change preserves the spirit of the book. Bruce Miller also made the wise choice of adding in details to show that we aren’t too far off from 2017. Now that The Handmaid’s Tale has been renewed for a second season, I do wonder how the comparison to the book will pan out. Does the first season encapsulate the whole novel, or will the season end partway through? If you have read the book, you’ll know that the Epilogue gives fodder for how the show could continue if season one does end with the book.

Still, I’d argue that all of the best adaptations succeed because they can be enjoyed on their own merits, and that’s my belief of The Handmaid’s Tale. The whitewashed lighting and beautiful set and costume design lend a real cinematic feel, and the writing includes plenty of time for suspense and speculation — but it doesn’t go full Lost and add a ton of elements that the viewer doesn’t have time to make sense of. Even the songs at the end of each episode are perfect. It’s dystopian fiction without any teens being sorted, and it’s grounded enough in reality that you won’t feel like it’s set on a different planet. The Handmaid’s Tale is a series so gripping that when I remember it’s Wednesday and a new episode is up, I’m more than happy to switch off the news. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.

Show You Should Be Watching If You Aren’t Already: Difficult People

Tomorrow the second season of Hulu’s Difficult People premieres which means you have 24 hours or less to catch up (or at least start the first season if you haven’t already). If you haven’t heard of it, let me introduce you to a show about the most ridiculous human beings who you love and dislike greatly at the same time.

Basic Plot

As best friends living in New York City, Billy and Julie’s typical, irreverent behavior lands them in some very awkward situations.

It’s obviously not high concept, so it’s nothing like your Orphan Blacks or Mr. Robots. Think of it like Will & Grace meets… a less boring version of Seinfeld? But you know what else isn’t high concept? The reasons why you should start watching and catch up to ALL 8 EPISODES FROM THE FIRST SEASON (!) just in time for season two.

Queen Amy Poehler Is Responsible For This Gem

If you trust Queen Poehler’s comedic chops, then you should probably at least give this show a try. Game recognize game, ya feel me? Amy is an executive producer of the show, and had known both Billy and Julie pre-Difficult People. She obviously had known Billy from Parks and Rec, and Julie was a performer at UCB, the improv company Amy co-founded. We know Amy has already hit it out of the ballpark as an executive producer of Broad City, and while I admittedly don’t think Difficult People is as strong as Abbi & Ilana’s masterpiece, Amy still stands behind the show 100%. So I do too. She’s said of Difficult People, “I would binge-watch the shit out of this show if I weren’t involved with it.”

For A Dollar…

Billy Eichner first came into the comedy world with a Funny or Die webseries called Billy on the Street, which eventually led to his TV show on TruTV. At some point during his TV show, he got hired as the boisterous (and not too far off from his Billy on the Street character) Craig Middlebrooks on Parks and Rec. His alter ego Billy on Difficult People is somewhere in between Billy on the Street and Billy Eichner IRL, but all equally hilarious.

Hulu’s 30 Rock of Cameos

The recurring characters on the show are worth it alone – Gabourey Sidibe as a waitress at the restaurant Billy works at, Rachel Dratch as a customer at said restaurant, and the glorious Andrea Martin as Julie’s psychologist mother. Then there’s the season one guest stars who you are pleased to see come across your screen, such as a weird Seth Meyers and magician Kate McKinnon. For the second season, they got some pretty heavy hitters, including Tina Fey and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Need I say more?

Pop Culture Refs

I love a good pop culture reference. It’s 90% of my daily conversation. There are enough pop culture references in Difficult People that would rival Gilmore Girls. And Gilmore Girls had literal booklets in their DVD sets explaining what all the refs were. Julie (a Real Housewives of New York recapper – a job she really had for Vulture) and Billy (an aspiring actor) are the same, and their interactions with each other are based on their love for celebrities. At one point, Julie tells Billy at an Oscars party, “There was a small earthquake in L.A., but don’t worry: Emmy Rossum is fine.” I mean, thank GOD.

Your Emotions On Screen

One point of contention not all people may enjoy about the show is that Billy and Julie aren’t afraid to speak their minds and ruffle some feathers. They are at times brash, a little too honest, but entirely self-aware. Is this a good thing? Who knows. Is it what you’re probably thinking inside but too afraid to say outloud? Yes.

Cutting The Cable Cord: What They Don’t Tell You

You learn a lot of things when you buy a house. For instance, I learned that the grouchy, snarly dogs next door are no match for a four-foot fence. Which brings me to my second lesson: keep your overhead costs low so that you can invest in your long-term purchases. I keep my electric, gas, and water bills as low as I can so that I can splurge on purchases like, well, a taller fence. To that end, I decided to go cable-free. This is an increasingly popular option, with trend pieces calling millennials a “generation of cord cutters” when they’re not calling us a “generation of garbage people” or a “generation of stoop-necked phone-gazers.” I’m a month in and it’s going pretty well, although I’ve found out a few things those trend pieces didn’t mention.

Math Helps

Most tv and internet providers offer bundled packages, so before you get rid of cable it helps to calculate whether paying for internet and streaming video services individually is really cheaper. I recommend this calculator from Slate, which takes into account the cost difference of internet-only services versus cable-internet bundles.

What they don’t tell you: If you’re moving into a new place, you’re probably being offered an introductory rate from your cable/internet/satellite provider. After a year or two when your rates go up, you’ll see an even steeper savings by going cable-free. Read the fine print. Some contracts lock you in to two years of service, but the introductory rates end after a year. Calculate it both ways: with the new customer discounts, and with the standard bundle cost. Don’t forget to look at the true cost of cable, including rental of a cable box or satellite equipment.

Select Your Streaming Services

There are plenty of articles and websites to help with this, but if you’re new to streaming services you will probably want to compare who offers what. Are there specific shows you want to see, or do you just want a big catalog of shows and movies? Are you willing to sacrifice variety for cost? Netflix is the most expensive, although still a very reasonable $108 per year; it also offers the best variety of programming. Hulu Plus seemed totally unnecessary to me until I cut cable. That’s when I realized that if I missed network shows, I had to watch them on my tiny tablet screen and wait a week – and that’s if I could get the app to work (more on that later). Now I’m thinking I’ll add Hulu in the fall as a replacement for DVR/ On Demand services. Besides, I’ll want to watch The Mindy Project. Amazon Prime is the cheapest but with the smallest selection of shows and movies. But I bought Prime on a one-day sale for about $75 since I knew I’d be ordering a lot of things for the house, and Prime Instant Video was a nice bonus.

What they don’t tell you: When you do your math, don’t forget to factor out the streaming services you would get anyway. Yes, I use Netflix and Amazon Prime to stream shows, but I would still have those services even if I had cable. Since that cost is a constant, I didn’t add those services to the equation.

Another thing: Except for Amazon Prime, which you buy upfront for a year, you can cancel these services at will. I’m not getting Hulu Plus until the fall TV season, and if I had it already I would probably cancel it for June, July, and August. Cable doesn’t let you do that.

And Your … Streamer?

I read a lot of reviews and ended up with the Roku streaming stick, but you can look up the differences between Roku and Amazon Fire and Apple TV, and a myriad of others, and come to your own conclusions. If you’re getting a new TV you might want to look into a Smart TV, too.

Note: Most of them offer “free channels” and many of those free channels are full of cruddy direct-to-video, Lifetime-quality movies that are 15 years old, or weird sitcoms from 1970s Germany.

What they don’t tell you: You might be tempted to go with bare-bones internet since you’ll be paying for standalone service, but make sure you have enough bandwidth to stream with decent video quality.

Fill The Gap

This is crazy-person territory, but we’re serious about TV here. Make a list of which shows are must-watch for you, then figure out what you’ll need to get them. Which are on Hulu, and which will be on the network’s website that week?  Sling gets great reviews, but I hardly watch anything on the channels it provides so it would be a waste of money. For shows on network tv, do they air at times when you’re likely to be home?

What they don’t tell you: This was my initial problem with cord cutting in general. Everyone talks about how many shows are on Netflix and all of the free channels that Roku has, but that assumes that you want to watch any show. Just … anything at all, on your television. Not a particular show, close to when it airs, because otherwise you’ll be that person who makes your friends stop a conversation because you’re a season behind. So if you have any shows that you watch religiously, this step is a big help.

Another thing: Season passes for individual shows. When I moved most network shows had only a few weeks left, and the only cable shows I was watching were Mad Men and Orphan Black. It made more sense to pay $20 for one season of one show than to lock into months of a cable plan or even streaming service if I didn’t really need it.

Get By With A Little Help From Your Friends (Or: The Time Warner App Should Be Ashamed Of Itself)

#thanksmom

My parents have had HBO since I was wearing footie pajamas and watching Babar. That means they have HBO Go, and it’s a pretty common thing to “borrow” an HBO customer’s login information. My parents weren’t even using it. I also used their Time Warner info. I should probably feel guilty, but I don’t because that app doesn’t even work. Honestly, I could never get an episode to play. However, sometimes a network’s website will ask for your cable service login to watch, and that’s when this really comes in handy – that’s how I ultimately was able to watch Mad Men.

What They Don’t Tell You: This might work in a pinch if you miss an episode, but Time Warner (and I think Comcast?) doesn’t stream to your TV if you aren’t in the account holder’s house, so you have to watch on a computer or tablet screen. You also should share one of your streaming accounts with the person whose cable info you’re using. I offered my parents my Netflix account and my mom completed her first binge-watch with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Don’t Forget The Antenna

You’re going to need one of those. You get great picture quality on HDTVs, and can watch NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS, PBS … and then a bunch of weird channels playing what looks like nothing so much as televised depression. I looked up the best-reviewed indoor antennas, and mine works great.

What They Don’t Tell You: This weird flat paddle makes it look like I’m trying to defibrillate my living room wall:

Yes, I’m blogging from my couch during a Gilmore Girls marathon.

Wait It Out

If you’re at the end of your cable contract or moving to a new place, try a month or so without cable and see how it goes. It took me a bit of time to figure out how to keep up with the shows I wanted to, and I’m glad I didn’t go with cable straight away. Besides, now it’s almost summer, and I really won’t be indoors watching television much until September, anyway. All told, I’m glad that I am saving a bit of money on my cable bills – and every time I step into my backyard without being greeted by two lunging pit bulls, I think that it was worth every penny I saved.

Save The Mindy Project: Hulu, Don’t Screw This Up

Apparently Fox doesn’t read our blog – or like good television – because they ignored our pleas to #RenewMindy. Your loss, Fox. Our blog is really good. And so is the Mindy Project.

It’s fine; we’re fine.

As a lawyer, I’m looking at this pragmatically: it just doesn’t make sense to cancel The Mindy Project. [Also, as a human, I know that starting a sentence with “as a anything” is super obnoxious. Try it with any identifier; it’s true.] The Mindy Project took a season or so to find its footing and sort out its tone and supporting cast. Watching season one – as with most shows – is like Facebook stalking those randos you hung out with the first month of college and never talked to again. But since the beginning it has had sharp writing, an all-around fantastic cast (we love Xosha Roquemore!), and a protagonist who’s not like anyone else we’ve seen on tv. It also has a few other things a network would be crazy to give up:

  • a dedicated fan base – which financially, means you have a discrete set of people who will be watching the show when it airs or over fine platforms such as Hulu, buying DVDs, etc. The ratings have been mediocre, but better than a number of shows that were renewed. Also, ratings are a bit garbage-y because of the weight the Nielson algorithm gives to live viewing on an actual tv screen. No, really, the top 10 shows last week included 20/20, 60 Minutes, NCIS, and Dancing With The Stars. The Nielsen top 10 basically reads as a viewing list to prep for brunch with your mom and grandma.
  • critical acclaim – most critics loved Mindy, and the rest at least liked it. It even was nominated for or won awards – everything from Critic’s Choice to People’s Choice to Teen Choice, Gracie Awards and TCA Awards. Only some of those really count, but still.
  • three seasons – as in, 67 episodes; as in, only 33 more to reach the golden 100 episodes. 100 episodes usually means that you see a picture of the cast cutting a dumb themed cake in TV Guide (another topic for brunch with your grandma: things you read in TV Guide). But more importantly, that’s the point at which most tv shows are licensed for off-network syndication. Even if TMP hasn’t performed to Fox’s liking, those repeated airings on FX or TBS or whatever can more than return the network’s investment. I just find it really hard to believe that producing 1-2 more seasons wouldn’t be profitable when you factor in syndication.

There’s a chance that getting dropped by Fox might be the best thing for The Mindy Project. It matters less and less what people are watching on broadcast. Some of the top series – House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, for instance – “air” on Netflix. Hulu originals haven’t caught on as much yet, but there’s no reason they couldn’t. Like many money-conscious millennials, I’ve already cut the cable cord and use my handy Roku to watch shows. It’s actually better for a lot of us when shows are broadcast on online platforms, because we don’t have to try to be home at a certain time to catch it on our antenna. [A post about cord-cutting is coming next week, but until then let’s just say that it’s fine, but there’s no attractive way to tape a flat antenna to your wall.]

Attn: Fox.

The Mindy Project isn’t owned by Fox – it’s owned by NBC Universal. It’s their game now. It just makes sense for them to pitch it to Hulu, get their additional 30 or so episodes in, then cash in on all those airings of The Mindy Project at 7:00, 6:00 central on TNT beginning in 2018. NBC has already shown that they’re willing to take this path with their comedies – you can now catch Community on Yahoo. It’s Fox’s loss, but Hulu, it’s up to you now. Don’t screw this up.

 

Shows You Should Be Watching If You Aren’t Already: Moone Boy

As we’ve mentioned, summer is the perfect time to start up a new tv series, since you have plenty of time to catch up on episodes before the new season starts. I just wrapped up Orphan Black (watch it!) and Hulu was promo-ing the heck out of Moone Boy, so I figured why not?

If you’re not already, you should be watching this show. It’s the perfect light summer tv fare – like the sitcom version of strawberry shortcake, but made with more of a biscuit base so it’s not TOO sweet. Let’s review:

This show is about Martin (David Rawle), a 12-year-old boy growing up in Ireland with his parents, older sisters, and imaginary friend. Yes, an imaginary friend, who actually appears on screen and is an adult man. This sounds horribly twee, but it really isn’t. The reason? Kids having imaginary friends isn’t cute to begin with. It’s weird and kind of creepy. One of my nephews has a whole gaggle of imaginary friends. He can tell you their birth dates, the age they were at any given year, their eerily realistic-sounding life stories (Sara got married when she was 17, but got divorced in 1979). None of the details ever waver.

Guys, I think my nephew sees ghosts.

At any rate, the imaginary friend thing isn’t too cutesy, which was my main concern.

Imaginary man aside, this show is refreshingly realistic, and that’s what I like about it. If you watch a lot of shows from Ireland or the UK, you already know that the actors are a lot more … plausible-looking than they are in US television. The kid looks like a regular awkward kid and his sisters look like regular, awkward teens:

The family interactions are lifelike, too – thanks to a great cast and solid writing. Like, Martin’s dad Liam confronts the school bullies’ dad. In most shows, he’d this big hulking dude who would intimidate Liam. Instead, this man instantly agrees that his kids are the worst, and the dads commiserate about how they can’t stand their own children sometimes. When the local women campaign for Mary Robinson’s presidential race, they have feminist motives but also just really like her haircut.

If the Mary Robinson reference didn’t tip you off, Moone Boy is an early ’90s period piece. It’s odd that my childhood is now distant yesteryear in TV-land, but it’s pretty fun to see the fashions and home furnishings of the day. Granted, I’m American, so my main point of reference for the Ireland of 1990 is this kid Paul who used to stay with my cousins every summer. It was some kind of American family/ child of NRA prisoner exchange program. Nice kid.

The really embarrassing thing is it took until the second episode for me to realize that the show was set 23 years ago. With God as my witness, I just thought that maybe people abroad were still really into Dynasty. Sorry, Ireland — it’s not that I think that you’re permanently stuck in 1990. It’s that I am.

Maybe you still aren’t sold, so I’ll pull out the last big draw. The imaginary friend, Sean Murphy? He’s played by the wonderful Chris O’Dowd, who you’ll know from Bridesmaids, Friends With Kids, and Girls. Also apparently Monsters vs Aliens, but we don’t need to dwell on that.

But we CAN dwell on Chris O’Dowd, who is kind of oddly appealing.

If you’re looking for a funny but not too fluffy show to add to your summer schedule, this is it. New episodes are posted on hulu.com every Wednesday, and the first two are up now, unless you have Hulu plus – you lucky folks can watch the whole series. However, like imaginary friends, Hulu Plus users may not actually exist, because I’ve never met one yet.