Disruptive Disjunctions and The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Curator's Note

With The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu has launched what it hopes to be a flagship series, one capable of bolstering its brand in the US market and, perhaps, in preparation for broader international expansion down the road. This approach closely follows a model established by other streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix, and is built on the premise of internet television, the idea that media should be consumed outside of outdated boundaries—based on platform-specificity, geography, or conventional schedules. Even with the general acceptance of globalizaton, however, this model does not always unfold as planned, and Canada may highlight some of these discrepancies. Whereas Margaret Atwood’s affiliation should help to invite a more international audience, Hulu is currently unavailable in Canada. In this regard, Canada, along with other Anglophone markets, manifests the simultaneous presumption of transnational free trade and the shifting “need” to erect arbitrary barriers—if not as a means of “protection,” then as a way to manufacture exclusivity.

The Handmaid’s Tale also illustrates the perils of original programming and the ever-increasing appeal to “quality.” Most content producers follow a standard formula comprised of high production values, established directors, stars, and genres, and pre-sold properties with a built-in audience. But as competition intensifies, even the most distinctive shows may be lost amidst the unending scroll of sameness. As a result, more pressure shifts to marketing and publicity campaigns to establish the appearance of value, a gambit entirely contingent on the reciprocal promotion that exists between content and social media gatekeepes.

After three episodes, the most interesting moments involve points where the Hulu series diverges from Atwood’s original text to engender a narrative world of its own. But unlike the temporal divergences that form an important crux in the novel – as the protagonist contemplates that “other time,” the state of things that precedes her current state – these divergences are maybe only part of the most instrumental kind of logic, nothing more than a means of harvesting additional value from the source material. In this case, it may not matter that science fiction, as Steven Shaviro writes in Post-Cinematic Affect, often depicts “the latent futurity that already haunts us in the present.” That is, even as The Handmaid’s Tale adamantly draws attention to this facet, its new place within the demands of peak TV may abrogate this kind of historicity or its ability to defamiliarize the dystopia it aims to forewarn against.

Comments

Deborah James's picture

Prestige TV and the ever higher bar for production value

Kevin, you hit upon an important aspect of THT and its like, which reminds me of an emerging production-based ‘genre’ called ‘prestige TV.’ The gatekeepers, it would seem, are establishing a category of quality television and telling us how to measure, ‘good’ TV. Thoughtful. That aside, I appreciate you introducing the practice of extra-screen promotion, such as planned for SXSW, the LA Book Show/Fair, and pushing Atwood as prophet to the forefront with ‘appearances’ on millenial-targeted social media (live chat on Reddit), as well as maintaining her natural audience at NYTimes, Vanity Fair, etc.

I would argue that this may present something of a model of what is to come in the sVOD battle to gain attention in the prestige TV category.

And, from this perspective, might there emerge ‘low-brow’ TV out of someplace like YouTube Red? Or, are we stuck with evermore slick and over-produced TV? You have given me matters to ponder.

Kevin McDonald's picture

Television's Future

Thank you, Debbie, for your comment; it really helps to spell out some of the issues that I’ve been trying to think more about. First, I would agree that prestige as a kind of genre is becoming more important across television, but that it also functions differently across different types of ‘channels’. I’m not sure channel is the best description here, but there are important distinctions between pay channels (HBO and Showtime), cable networks (AMC or FX), streaming services (Hulu, Amazon, Netflix), and traditional broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). Whereas broadcast networks still need prestige to prop up ad sales, pay channels and streaming services rely on this programming as a way to attract and then maintain their subscriber base. One of the interesting things is that even though streaming services supposedly operate outside of the traditional forms of audience measurement, there is inevitably a need for metrics that can indicate the success of prestige programming. Social media sites serve in this capacity to some extent (providing ways to measure audience interest and engagement), but this is also where content and promotion begins to blur, possibly to the point where promotional campaigns become more of a distraction or even a disservice that undermines the ability of certain shows to resonate with audiences. Over promotion can create impossible expectations leading to the appearance of failure which may be much more of a detriment to fledgling streaming services and cable networks than to the major networks. TV seems to still be a hit-driven industry and it is interesting to see how quickly the newer platforms assimilated to this with only slight modifications.

As to your question regarding the possibility of non-prestige TV, I think the answer is yes but that this possibility is constrained by how the industry remains beholden to a relatively staid business model. The whole promise of new streaming services was that they were going to democratize the production process. I guess there have been some signs of this and, at the end of the day, there are more “choices.” However, I don’t see YouTube Red as a factor. It seems like Google has been trying to monetize YouTube for a long time with little success—and I don’t think that “low brow” options will get people to start paying for what they expect for free. In fact, the other streaming channels have had to follow the HBO model and offer something better than TV to get audiences to pay for their services. With that said, Netflix may be the most likely to offer more low- to middle-brow options. Mainly by virtue of its larger overall budget, it seems to be in the best position to take more chances with and continue expanding its original programming, even if it’s all destined to lie fallow in the furthest recesses of its catalog.

Sharon Lauricella's picture

Rogue TV

Kevin, this commentary on prestige tv and availability is most relevant given the release of THT. I have to sheepishly admit (may the media gods forgive me) that living in Canada, I watched the series immediately after release. I was able to do that because… I streamed it on an Android device (at least I didn’t download it!). So, the idea of moonshine-style tv is another issue altogether. In an era of prohibition-tv in which people have to pay for cable, Netflix, Hulu, AppleTV, etc., and make decisions about where (or where not) to spend their money, there are still ways around it. I feel savvy having found THT, though Lord knows my students know far more than I do about getting around fees.

There are also other, more positive, purposes for sharing media. For example, documentaries like The 13th arguably ought to be free given the nature of their social justice agenda. Could there be a model for this? With an increasingly right-leaning government in the US, is it possible that the wealthy will be the ones to both control and access media? Could our access to statement media such as THT be restricted (ironically, the purpose of the series itself)?

Thanks for a thoughtful piece which provokes consideration of ethics, finances, and media accessibility.

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