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Hulu's 'Handmaid's Tale' Delivers A Timely And Feminist Message


This is FRESH AIR. Tonight, the Hulu streaming service premieres a new adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale," the 1986 novel by Margaret Atwood. Her futuristic story, in which women are denied rights and freedoms and the most fertile of them treated as breeding stock, is now a 10-part miniseries starring Elisabeth Moss, who played Peggy Olson on "Mad Men." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "The Handmaid's Tale" arrives on Hulu already riding a wave of controversy - with several people involved in the production, some producers and even some stars, denying that this new miniseries adaptation is either a frightening feminist narrative or a timely political commentary.

Of course it is. And those aspects, especially the swift and aggressively hostile erosion of women's rights and status, are what make "The Handmaid's Tale" so haunting.

Margaret Atwood wrote her futuristic novel in the 1980s, midway through the Reagan years and echoing the Cold War divisions and tensions of the generation before. Bruce Miller, who has adapted her novel for television, sets the story in the very near tomorrow. It's a dystopian world where parts of the country are polluted by toxins and radiation, and other parts are ruled by a strict, conservative sect governed entirely by men. Women are either pampered but powerless trophy wives, humble servants known as Marthas or fertile breeding stock called handmaids, prized because the family patriarchs can impregnate them, using them as vessels to deliver babies for their wives.

Elisabeth Moss, who as Peggy Olson on "Mad Men" started with so little power and status, has even less as we meet her in "A Handmaid's Tale" (ph). She's a handmaid who's recently given name is Offred because she now is the property of a man named Fred, of Fred. And just as in the novel, she's mostly servile and silent on the outside but has lots to say to herself, as when she describes the rather stark room to which she's been assigned as the new handmaid of a couple whose wife is barren but wants a child.


ELISABETH MOSS: (As Offred) A chair and then a table, a lamp - and a window with white curtains. And the glass says shatterproof, but it isn't running away they're afraid of. A handmaid wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge or a twisted sheet and a chandelier.

I try not to think about those escapes. It's harder on ceremony days, but thinking can hurt your chances.

My name is Offred. I had another name, but it's forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.

BIANCULLI: Hulu's "A Handmaid's Tale" isn't the only TV series recently to update a vintage novel and dramatize a creepy, totalitarian future and make members of the resistance its endangered heroes. Another streaming service, Amazon, has done a fine job with the '60s sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick, "The Man In The High Castle," which imagined what might have happened if the Allies had lost World War II and the Japanese and Nazis had divided up and controlled the United States. But though the country as we know it falls in "A Handmaid's Tale" as well, this time, the chief victims are its women.

Hulu made three episodes available for preview. And by the time they're over, it's made all too clear that the past depicted in the TV show is our present. We see increasingly detailed flashbacks which show Moss' character and a girlfriend starting an average work day - going for a neighborhood run, stopping for a coffee - when all hell breaks loose. It happens instantly. And watching it happen is like seeing a monster movie but one where the monsters are the men seizing power. And the future world of "The Handmaid's Tale" is even more haunting because it's all paranoia and bleakness.

Eventually, Offred gets approached by a fellow handmaid, played by Alexis Bledel from "Gilmore Girls," who is part of the resistance and says simply, join us. That kicks off another of Offred's internal monologues.


MOSS: (As Offred) There is an us. Seems imagined, like secrets in the fifth grade, people with mysterious histories and dark linkages. It doesn't seem as if it should be the true shape of the world. That's a hangover from an extinct reality. Now the guardians of the faithful and American soldiers still fight with tanks in the remains of Chicago. Now Anchorage is the capital of what's left of the United States. And the flag that flies over that city has only two stars. Now darkness and secrets are everywhere. Now there has to be an us because now there is a them.

BIANCULLI: The TV version changes or emphasizes different parts of the novel. The central character's real name is revealed, for example, though it never was in the book. And while Atwood described and explained the meanings of the color schemes of the various costumes worn by women in her story, the visual force of them, especially in group shots, is palpable. Handmaids wear white bonnets that obscure their features and long, red robes that allude to their rare and valued fertility.

Those images, like the horrifyingly clinical scenes of forced procreation, won't soon leave you, nor will the central performance by Elisabeth Moss. Even with all her character's interior monologues, she says the most with her super expressive face and eyes. Sometimes she glares straight into the camera as if to say, please don't let this happen to me, which may well be the essence of this TV drama's very timely and very feminist message.

GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From 'I Love Lucy' To 'The Walking Dead,' How TV Became Terrific." The Hulu series "The Handmaid's Tale" begins streaming tonight.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with journalist Bruce Weber who, for years, began his day like this.

BRUCE WEBER: You know, usually, after I say hello to my colleagues, it would be - OK, so who's dead?

GROSS: Weber wrote more than a thousand obituaries for The New York Times. We'll also be joined by Times obituary writer Margalit Fox. They're featured in the new documentary "Obit." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "I CAN'T BE SATISFIED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.