The Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour is a chance for networks to preview what they have in store for the coming year, and this year, as we gear up for Little Donald’s inauguration, it doubles as a preview of the kinds of questions that artists and creators are bound to face in the coming months and years — questions about the social relevance of their work in light of Trump’s election and incoming presidency.
Since November 9, it’s become very difficult to talk about — or even look at — popular culture without refracting it through the prism of politics. This is particularly, if coincidentally, true of the majority of Hulu’s upcoming slate of original series, which includes an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale; a drama centered on prostitutes in Georgian London called Harlots; the second season of The Path, about a hardline, cult-like movement that tears a family apart; the British series National Treasure, about a beloved TV star who experiences a fall from grace when he’s publicly accused of having raped a 15-year-old girl years ago; and a drama based on Lawrence Wright’s investigative masterpiece The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which doesn’t yet have a premiere date.
The most obvious and infuriating parallel to our current political hellscape is The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopic vision of a society in which fertile women are forced to bear children in order to “serve the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives,” in the words of the severe Aunt Lydia, played by Ann Dowd. The show stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred, who is forcibly separated from her husband and daughter so she can serve her purpose of bearing a child for the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
As showrunner Bruce Miller noted during a TCA panel on Saturday, “The book’s been around for 35 years, and every time someone reads it, they say, ‘Wow, this is timely.’” Many, many moments in the show’s first episode resonate to a terrible degree: Offred’s description, in voiceover, of the “return to traditional values” that’s turned the United States into a totalitarian theocracy; the ubiquitous presence of armed men; Aunt Lydia’s declaration that “ordinary is just what you’re used to”; and, of course, women’s loss of control over their own bodies. (In a nice touch, “You Don’t Own Me” accompanies the closing credits.)
While the series was obviously in development long before Trump won the election, Miller said, “None of us could ignore what was happening. I mean, I was writing the pilot script during the primaries, during all those debates. So we were, of course, mindful of [Trump’s rise].” Moss added that one of the things she found most interesting about her character was how she “leans into” her womanhood and sexuality in order to gain power. “It’s a very big part of the plot that at some point she figures that out and at some point she starts to use it,” she said.
Harlots, which stars Jessica Brown Findlay and Samantha Morton, similarly explores how women can — and often have no other choice but to — use their sexuality to advance themselves in a patriarchal society. Set in London in 1763, when a whopping one in five women worked as prostitutes, Harlots is about a group of women striving for financial independence and social mobility using the only practical tool they’ve got — their bodies. As executive producer Debra Hayward pointed out, “Prostitution then was one of the only ways that women could be socially mobile. If you were the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat and you married somebody else, your fortune instantly became his fortune.”
Co-creator Moira Buffini added that at the time, when a woman married, “Your husband instantly becomes the owner of all your money and all your property and so, in a way, a harlot has the advantage. If she is able to get some money of her own, she gets to keep it as long as she remains unmarried.” Of course, in 2017, women can earn money and independence without having sex for money. And yet it’s hard to deny that physical beauty — particularly an age-defying body — is among the most reliable paths for a woman to gain power in this world.
It’s going to get real old real fast if every TV or film review for the next four years begins with the words, “In the age of Trump….” But as we prepare to enter an era of extraordinary constraints on the freedoms many of us now realize we’ve long taken for granted, Hulu’s new series are remarkably, infuriatingly relevant. Even the continuing existence of Casual, a snoozer of a series about wealthy white people seeking personal fulfillment (with, to be fair, some excellent performances), feels maddeningly appropriate.
I imagine a lot of people will relate to one line in particular from The Handmaid’s Tale’s pilot, delivered in Moss’s sarcastic, bitterly angry voiceover as her character picks over the fruit selection in a brightly-lit grocery store: “I don’t need oranges. I need to scream. I need the nearest machine gun.”
The Path Season 2 premieres January 25; National Treasure premieres March 1; Harlots premieres March 29; The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26; and Casual Season 3 premieres May 23, all on Hulu.