For once, the hype around the arrival of the latest American drama is absolutely justified.
The 10-part The Handmaid’s Tale – screening now on SBS’s On Demand platform – deserves savouring (don’t binge!) and pondering why it’s such damn fine television.
This is the first television adaptation of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s 1985 fictional tale of a time when the world is, frankly, knackered because of environmental vandalism.
Christian fundamentalists have staged a coup as the birth rate plummets in what’s known as the Republic of Gilead, formerly part of the United States.
Women who can give birth are now so rare that they are hunted down and corralled into a place that’s a cross between an appalling Victorian boarding school and a convent.
They’re verbally and physically beaten into submission and oppression. They are used as breeders for wealthy and powerful families whose women can’t provide the family heir. Anyone who gets in the way of the breeding program is ruthlessly eliminated.
It’s a fabulous book and its themes remain relevant today. But great books don’t automatically mean great television.
From the first moment of the first episode of this series, though, the audience is gripped by its guts.
It’s immediately clear that this is a world dominated by fear and threat.
A family with a beautiful, clearly precious, child is on the run but we don’t know from who or why. That clever teasing-out of the story is a series hallmark.
That chase doesn’t end well and the child and her mother are forcibly separated.
Elisabeth Moss – known to audiences here for Top of the Lake and internationally for her roles in Mad Men and The West Wing – brilliantly plays the mother, Offred, and she’s the central character in this series.
We next meet her as she arrives to join the Handmaids – uniformly dressed in red, with white bonnets that hide their faces from view. Her transformation from a free woman and mother – and her fight for survival – begins.
This all works because an incredibly talented production team has brought it to life.
What’s rare is that Bruce Miller, who took Atwood’s book and turned it into television is also the show-runner. (Atwood is also credited with a deep involvement – as writer and as a producer.)
That means there’s one creative vision from the start. The model usually followed in, say, Australian drama productions, is that a creative vision has many fingerprints and, as a result, can become distorted and confused.
With that clarity from the top, The Handmaid’s Tale is a splendid, cohesive piece of work – realised by extraordinary actors. Ann Dowd, for example, delivers a staggering performance as the religiously-obsessed Aunt Lydia and Joseph Fiennes plays The Commander who breeds from Offred, in a bizarre coupling involving his infertile and suffering wife.
SBS fought off heavy commercial competition to buy this series. A genius decision because it will drive audiences (and much-needed advertising dollars) to its On Demand services – already regarded as the Australian market leader.