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Television

Hulu’s brutal ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ earns a glowing critical reception

Elisabeth Moss
Elisabeth Moss as Offred in Hulu’s original series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
(Hulu)

Hulu’s dystopian “The Handmaid’s Tale” launched Wednesday to critical plaudits — for author Margaret Atwood, for lead actress Elisabeth Moss and her costars, and for the couldn’t-have-done-it-better timing of the streaming service’s latest offering.

Other than a few remarks about the characters’ ages and the sequence of events varying from the source material in Bruce Miller’s adaptation of Atwood’s 1985 novel, the overall reception of the brutal tale was glowing redder than its handmaids’ robes.

The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd dubbed the drama — which tells the story of “handmaid” Offred, who is forced into sexual slavery to bear children for the barren leaders of the totalitarian Gilead, a dismal theocratic state that has replaced the United States in the near future — “a studiously handsome, generally impressive 10-part series.”

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“There is a lot of voice-over narration from Offred and time spent gazing into the face of Moss, an actress who can embody complicated, contradictory inner states in a single look,” Lloyd said. “Generally speaking, the performers ... push against the deadening tastefulness of the production: the chiaroscuro, shallow-focus photography; sound design that sometimes sounds like a long subway train is passing underneath a scene; the blandly expensive set decoration.

“With very occasional exceptions … its pace feels slow enough to read chapters of the novel between lines of dialogue. That, of course, may be the point; a suffocating stillness is in the spirit of the book. How it will play out in later episodes, I can’t say.”

Moss, an actress who has become increasingly politically outspoken, reflected in a recent interview with The Times, about the impact the series might have.

“I feel passionately about my choices in life being protected,” she said. “I think women in my generation have had a real wake-up call: Oh, wait, we’re not always going to have the things that our moms and grandmothers fought for? Oh, you mean you can take that away from us?”

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On that note, TV Line’s Kimberly Roots gave the series a grade of A-minus, asserting that “the overarching dread of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is that the world beyond the handmaids’ white, winged veils feels a heck of a lot like something that could, one day, play out in our own. Unsettling, no?

“Blame the stellar cast, which includes ‘Gilmore Girls’ ’ Alexis Bledel, ‘Chuck’s’ Yvonne Strahovski, ‘The Leftovers’ ‘ Ann Dowd and ‘Orange Is the New Black’s’ Samira Wiley,” Roots said. “Blame the excellent team behind the scenes, which includes writer Bruce Miller (‘The 100’) and director Reed Morano (‘Looking’), who helmed the first three episodes. And while you’re at it, blame Atwood’s 1980s book, which provides plenty of rich story and serves as a jumping-off point for paths not taken in the source material.”

That the series would take full advantage of the novel is no surprise — Atwood served as a consultant on the series. She’s also been ubiquitous in promoting it.

At the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books over the weekend, she responded to the lingering question of whether her novel is feminist — you can read her answer and the entire Q&A here. And while you’re at it, here’s where she addresses the book’s renaissance.

Variety’s Sonia Saraiya explained how Atwood’s “brilliant” story presented “quite a challenge for a screen adaptation.”

“The story has to build the world of Gilead, place the action in the context of the real world, and do justice to Atwood’s singular, award-winning prose,” she wrote. “Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ — deftly translated from the novel by showrunner Bruce Miller — is a worthy, heartbreaking adaptation of the text, anchored by strong performances and profound visual grammar.”

Over at Vox, Todd VanDerWerff said the first thing viewers would notice is that the series “timely.”

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“At this moment in history, fears about authoritarian religious conservative leadership in the U.S. are ever-present for many,” he wrote. “But what Hulu’s series makes you grapple with is that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is always timely, that we are always slipping a little bit toward the black hole at its center. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ isn’t just a show about now; it’s a show about always.”

“Hulu’s excellent adaptation ... is a horror show unveiled in slow motion,” wrote NPR’s Eric Deggans.

Meanwhile, AV Club’s Erik Andrews felt that even as TV’s most popular shows include “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” it was odd to call the chilling and relevant series “gripping.”

“Even given the novel’s reputation, and Atwood’s standing as a literary giant, it feels odd to put it in the terms of a traditional TV recommendation,” he wrote. “It’s very good TV, even if calling this ‘very good TV’ is to risk sounding like a sleaze at best and an avid Breitbart commenter at worst.

“But anyone who’d think that of someone who’s enthusiastic about ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is the same type of equally noxious person who’s been trying to keep this vital piece of literature out of public schools for the past 30 years. Don’t let those bastards grind you down: Watch ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ generate tomorrow’s nightmares from today’s anxieties, smuggling in a little bit of beauty and resiliency under all that ugliness.”

Follow me: @NardineSaad

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