When news and drama compete for time: The Handmaid’s Tale’s release

Curator's Note

 

It’s no surprise that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has drawn comparisons between the current political climate and the show’s themes of oppression and threats to agency. No doubt, the show will contribute to on-going debates about current real-life crises and be utilised as a framework for reading the various attacks on civil liberties. Hulu have opted for a mix between simultaneous and scheduled release, with an initial three, followed by a weekly schedule of the remainder episodes. However many reviews of the show reference it’s suitability for binge-watching and, given the nature of the Hulu platform, it will be possible to watch it in many different ways. 

Caution was made against binge-watching by The Handmaid’s Tale actor Elisabeth Moss. “I think that it’s important in a show like this to watch, step away and think about it…Every episode is so jam-packed…that I think it would almost be a shame to overdose so quickly on it.”

Perhaps there’s something to be said about the relationship between the temporality and duration of current news and political media and that of the fictional series that seems to reflect it.  Contemporary news media seems to have ever more accelerated in presenting a continuous and rapid overflow of fragmented sound bites, what Postman referred to as the ’Now…this’ of television’s form. On television, he argued, no sooner had something meaningful and important been represented, then the ‘Now…this’ interjection indicated an abrupt jump to something unrelated and often radically different in tone.

 The Handmaid’s Tale could provide a more ordered and contemplative statement about this same political landscape. Instead of the frenetic and fragmented relay of ever new snippets of information, fictional drama series offers focus and consistency of subject. However should it be binge-watched, it will gain one form of temporality-viewer attention for many hours-and lose another-an on-going and regular counter-point to wider society across time. Of course, it is not the responsibility of a fictional show to act as a regular voice of criticism or dissent but given how it’s already been received as a worthy contribution to current social discourse, The Handmaid’s Tale deserves staying in our minds a little bit longer.

 

Comments

Sharon Lauricella's picture

Watching alone

I agree that the the binge watch can interrupt the opportunity to engage in (terrifying!) comparison of what we see on the show and what we see on the news.

I watched the first three episodes in anticipation of this discussion, and given unforeseen circumstances, watched them alone. I think that even if I had the choice, I would have stopped when I did so that I could view the series with my partner (I certainly won’t watch the rest alone!). We could have pressed pause and said, “That’s just like [insert current event]”. Further, I’d have had somewhere safe to bury my face when Ofglen and her partner were separated.

The shared experience of the audience and ritualistic viewing can also apply to your helpful address of the option to binge or not.

Sarah Arnold's picture

Durationality and television

That’s a great point about having the capacity to pause and reflect. The Handmaid’s Tale certainly allows for such comparisons and readings to be made. Even though some of the makers have downplayed direct association with the current socio-political landscape, the show nonetheless clearly lends itself to such.

In terms of durationality, I feel there are certain shows that lend themselves to unscheduled or binge viewing and others that benefit from staggered delivery such as an episode a week. Given the topicality of the show, I feel that it would benefit from being firmly embedded in the ongoing ‘present-ness’ of these same issues and concerns as they materialise in wider media. And as shows become more detached from those fixed regimes of schedules and ‘mass viewing’ they might also feel less attached to the world that they seem to reflect.

Deborah James's picture

Durationality, time and the path to The Handmaid's Tale

As I read your post, Sarah, I cannot help but agree with you on the limits and shaping power of binge-watching. Sharon, the pause and reflect as a practice of meaning-making, is also well taken. It also occurs to me that part of the viewing audience read the book - first, when it was released in the 1980s and during the intervening years. As the daughter of a high school English teacher in Canada, I know that this book was never far from the classroom.

Many, if we assume book sales translate into books read, may have read the book in anticipation of the series. How might this longer-term immersion in the narrative influence our watching experience? I can only speak to my own experience, at this moment. While anticipating the show, rereading the book, and thinking about how the story impacted me back in the early 1990’s (Walking down Queen St in Toronto thinking of Offred, stopping in front of the Horseshoe Tavern, deciding in that moment to give up bankcards for cash. To this day, I still keep a stash in the event of…?). For me, watching all three initial episodes in succession has added a layer of visual and aural texture to my experience (sound in particular - the scratchy sound of the hand-held military radios has become a bit of an unwelcome ear worm) and deepened my understanding of the text, connecting it to contemporary events in unexpected ways.

However, portioning out the remainder of S1 on a weekly basis, allows for deeper and wider engagement with the text. Time will allow different audiences to learn of the show, opportunities to watch, time to think, decode then, share interpretations through more personal networks, outside of the mass media. As THT is released to new audiences outside of the U.S.(hope springs eternal), there might be opportunities to engage in meaningful discussions across borders and culture as a result of a week by week episode release.

Sarah Arnold's picture

The Handmaid's Tale and release window

It would certainly be interesting to assess the different responses to concerns that are equally felt in the UK and Ireland. And your comment points to another issue pertaining to temporality- that of different release windows across nations and territories. It was just announced in UK magazine Radio Times that a UK release for The Handmaid’s Tale has been secured with a broadcaster and this implies that it would be scheduled weekly on mainstream television (although many have found ways to watch it already). I’m eager to see the type of engagement (or not) this results in and to assess whether there is a difference in how and when audiences discuss the show. Certainly, audiences in the UK and Ireland are eager to see The Handmaid’s Tale and are watching how the show has been received. In Ireland, for example, we’re in the midst of some important debates about, and looking towards a forthcoming referendum on, reproductive rights so I’m curious to see how different release strategies and, indeed, different national contexts produce consistent or more localised readings.

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