This week, the resistance comes to streaming TV. Even though these exciting series were in production long before last November’s election, they’ve gained relevance as the new administration reaches the 100-day mark.
The first series is the stunning new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s revolutionary novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” which premiered on Hulu this week. The story is set in the all-too-near future. In a world where environmental calamities have caused the birthrate to plummet, extreme right-wing Christian fundamentalists have overthrown the U.S. government and established a totalitarian theocracy called Gilead in its place.
Gay men and other enemies of the regime are summarily executed. Women are not allowed to read and are strictly color coded by function. Wives of the elite are dressed in blue; “Marthas” (domestic servants) are dressed in green; and, “Handmaidens” are dressed in red. The Handmaidens, the only remaining fertile women, are forced into sexual slavery, serving as concubines for the ruling Commanders and the Wives.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is narrated by Offred (Elisabeth Moss) who is the Handmaiden for the “Commander” (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Moss (“Mad Men”) turns in a brilliant performance in a role of staggering physical and emotional demands. She not only turns in a wonderfully subtle turn as the seemingly composed and serene Handmaiden whose understated gestures convey a world of meaning, but also provides a vibrant voice-over narration and plays “June” in flashbacks of life before the establishment of Gilead.
The supporting cast, including Samira Wiley (“Orange is the New Black”) as June’s lesbian bff and Alexis Bledel (“Gilmore Girls”) as Offred’s companion. is uniformly excellent. Of special note is Ann Dowd who plays Aunt Lydia, one of the “Aunts” who indoctrinate the Handmaidens into their new lives. As a trainer, she is horrifically brutal, but as a midwife, she is surprisingly tender. The amazing ability of Atwood and series writer Bruce Miller to create such fascinating well-rounded characters is one of the great strengths and joys of the 10-episode series.
“Dear White People,” which premieres on Netflix on Friday, April 28, approaches contemporary politics from a more satiric angle. Based on the excellent 2014 movie of the same name by out writer/director Justin Simien, the 10-episode series wells the story of four black students at Winchester University, a predominantly white school. The movie covers freshman year; season one of the series covers sophomore year.
The same characters return (although most are played by different actors), but the continuity between the movie and the show is inconsistent. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the pot-smoking son of the dean, struggling to meet his father’s high expectations. Sam (Logan Browning) is the campus radical and host of the hard-hitting radio show that gives the series its name. Coco (Antoinette Robinson) is now an ambitious pre-law student. Lionel (DeRon Horton) is uneasily juggling his identities as a gay man, a journalist, an activist and a black man.
Unfortunately, the series suffers from sophomore slump. The first four episodes are mired in repetitive exposition, rehashing the grotesque blackface party that ends the movie. The series start to gain some traction in episode five, but it doesn’t really catch fire until the final episode (which was written and directed by Simien himself). The writing and directing of the other episodes (shared between several people) is uneven, often lacking the style and substance that made the movie such a delight.
Despite these flaws, the series is still worth watching. Simien and his creative team raise issues that need to be discussed. They are trenchant observers of our contemporary political climate and thoughtfully examine the messy intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality. The acting is strong and there are flashes of great writing.