The Handmaid's Tale has debuted to widespread acclaim. "Acclaim" really isn't even the word for it — most reviews agree that the show is so good it's beyond comparison. The series, available for streaming on Hulu, details a dystopia in the near future in which women are reduced to their reproductive purpose. The titular Handmaids are but "wombs on two legs," as the narrator Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) puts it, courtesy of a new puritanical political regime. Adapted from Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, the tale is eerily parallel to today's headlines; with a conservative in the White House, puritanical rhetoric has crept back into our political discourse.
In light of renewed policing of women's reproductive systems — and the health care overhaul the GOP passed in Congress last week — The Handmaid's Tale seems scarily relevant. The New York Times recently ran an essay titled, "Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump." The Verge published a piece titled "In Trump's America, The Handmaid's Tale Matters More Than Ever." This raises the question: Would The Handmaid's Tale be relevant without our current administration? And, more importantly, would we want to watch it?
The Times published an opinion editorial Tuesday titled "The Problem With Linking Abortion and Economics." Author Lori Szala writes, "Parenting presents undeniable challenges, but no one argues that those challenges give parents the right to kill their children." The piece is patently pro-life, and argues that society has a responsibility to nurture and protect young mothers (so that the young mothers don't go murdering their babies and all). Push Szala's rhetoric one step further, and you might find her suggesting that women should dedicate themselves to the act of bearing children — red cloaks and white wings optional.
To be clear: The Handmaid's Tale was in production before Trump won the election. Of course, Atwood's prescient book was written decades before Trump took office, although showrunner Bruce Miller said the 2016 election "might have unconsciously influenced some revisions" in an interview with Rolling Stone. In 2016, the show feels eerily prophetic, a quality that many seem to suggest is its most impressive.
The risk seems to be that all this praise for the series' political relevance will begin to delegitimise the show's level of shear brilliance. But its merits stretch well beyond its timeliness. All politics aside, The Handmaid's Tale is just plain excellent peak TV. The colour palette is exacting. The plotting is spellbinding in its suspense, and the soundtrack boasts the kind of specificity you only hear about in film class.
Yes, art is inherently political. Especially now, politics and pop culture feel more enmeshed than ever, perhaps because our leader honed his predilection for spewing unfiltered catchphrases on reality television. Great art, though, is timeless. The best stories transcend the headlines of the times, and The Handmaid's Tale is more than just its relevance.
Yes, we live in Trump's America, but we don't have to reference it every time we talk about The Handmaid's Tale.
The first series of The Handmaid's Tale is shown on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.