12:11pm PT by Tim Goodman
Critic's Notebook: As 'Handmaid's Tale' Loses Its Way, Will Shows Like 'Perpetual Grace, LTD' Be Found?
It's hard out there in TV Land.
So, if you know anything about Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, it's generally some combination of these three things:
1. It became the first streaming series to win the best drama Emmy in 2017 after its debut season.
2. You stopped watching it in season two.
3. You are still watching season three and don't care about what everybody else is saying.
I thought about this weird plight of The Handmaid's Tale earlier this month because, even though I struggled through the bleakness of season one and generally liked it, I joined a number of critics who thought the series went off the rails in season two and bailed with barely a handful of seen episodes. It was not a difficult choice. But it was as the current third season approached that you started to see outright disdain on Twitter from a number of influential critics.
It was exactly at this time when I was reviewing — and losing my mind in sheer ecstatic joy at — Epix's Perpetual Grace, LTD, a brilliant new series co-created by Bruce Terris and Patriot creator Steven Conrad.
The connective tissue so far in this story is audiences — both lost and potentially never found. Which circles back nicely to the theme that it really is hard out there in TV Land.
It's important to never lose sight of that narrative. A review is just a fleeting, momentary snapshot of a new television series. Actual performance relative to eyeballs and critical acclaim is the longer, more important story. It lasts more than a week. It lasts more than a season. It's important.
So before moving on, let's start with the three series mentioned above. First, how does a successful series like Handmaid's Tale tumble and fumble a great opportunity? It's so emphatically difficult to get any show sampled in the current TV landscape that it's simultaneously fascinating and jarring what's happened to it: From best drama Emmy win to viewers and critics saying "hard pass" on your latest season. That's not to say that Handmaid's Tale doesn't work anymore for Hulu, or even that Twitter is representative of viewing habits. But I'd argue that there's a trend emerging for Handmaid's Tale that it won't recover from.
In 2017, the show won Emmys for outstanding drama, lead actress (Elisabeth Moss), supporting actress (Ann Dowd) and writing for a drama series (Bruce Miller) — its only loss was Samira Wiley in the supporting actress category. Last year was far less kind: Wiley, in the guest actress category, was the only winner. Handmaid's Tale didn't win for writing, the series lost in the drama category; Moss lost in the lead actress category; Joseph Fiennes lost in the supporting actor category; Dowd, Alexis Bledel and Yvonne Strahovski all lost in the supporting actress category; and Kelly Jenrette and Cherry Jones lost in the guest actress category as the series also lost in the casting category. From best drama to forgotten drama.
Now, you might say, yes, but look at all of those nominations for season two! But, as is true of most Emmy years, those were built on the awareness that season one created. By the time the voting came, the verdict was in — it wasn't the same show. The mojo was gone.
So, what happened? The story dragged and lost its way, period. That kind of lack of attention to the content simply can't happen in the Peak TV era. Viewers have no patience for drift and stagnation even for their favorite shows because there's an overwhelming and glittering number of other choices.
Which brings us to both Epix's and Conrad and Terris's latest series, Perpetual Grace, LTD, with a marvelous cast headed by Ben Kingsley and a wonderfully creative, massively entertaining story that fuels it — on a platform you likely don't get and would need to be prodded to get, while Emmy voters in 2020 will have to have an anvil dropped on their head to remember it.
Those are some daunting obstacles, yes? And did you notice that when I mentioned Patriot above, I didn't put the platform on which it appears? That was to allow your brain to fill in the missing blank, which I'm sure it didn't. And that's the conundrum that Amazon — where two seasons of Conrad's first gem resides — faces as it decides what to do with it (unless it has decided already and has failed to tell anyone, which is becoming very popular on streaming platforms).
Here's a bell I'm about to ring, which has become an essential part of a critic's job these days: I ranked Patriot as the No. 6 best series of 2017 (out of 46), and the No. 2 best series of 2018 (out of 32, and trailing only The Americans). It deserved both of those rankings but still didn't ultimately find much of an audience (though ratings are not the driver of subscription services). In my review of Conrad's latest series — which also has an unhelpful title and is on an unfamiliar platform valiantly trying to compete in both the premium channel fight and the Streaming Wars — I posited that maybe its creative excellence has changed the equation. Maybe the narrative won't be that Conrad has two excellent but ratings-challenged shows, but will instead be that those platforms seeking an auteur to deliver quality will want to be in business with him, thus saving his little gems while developing his next show.
It could happen. But it certainly doesn't change the essential problem: It's hard out there in TV Land. While too soon to be definitive, it's likely that Perpetual Grace, LTD — like Patriot before it — will struggle to get noticed.
I will note here that I'm using these two series because not only do they fit the argument perfectly, but I love them and want them to live on. Both shows are merely representative of so many others out there — excellent series you haven't discovered yet. The list is staggering. Which, in a lot of ways, means they are the norm. They are not the forgotten so much as the lost. In this argument, Perpetual Grace, LTD and Patriot are the poster series.
I'm not presenting this as some breakthrough revelation. It's pretty simple, but it's also the new normal. And the thinking around this new normal needs to change for streaming services and premium channels who are going less for volume and more for prestige and quality — since quality is value and value is every bit as important as popularity to subscription services. The Streaming Wars will hammer this point home sooner rather than later.
And weirdly, it puts Amazon with Patriot and Epix with Perpetual Grace, LTD, in better positions than Hulu with its fading Handmaid's Tale; and it emphasizes the importance of maintaining quality control at platforms that pride themselves on a mostly hands-off approach to series (which endear them to content creators). You can't let great series falter, particularly if they are lucky enough to get awards notice (which absolutely helps subscription services and will be even more vital going forward). If platforms are blessed to develop critically acclaimed series, they need to nurture them, awards recognition or not. Going forward, as people cut the cable cord and start packaging streaming services, quality offerings will be essential selling points.
I have absolute faith that Hulu will move on and continue to develop strong original series (its spring comedy slate was tremendous). But Handmaid's Tale is toast. Only the diehards will be left and if the show continues to slide creatively this season, there will be more audience erosion ahead. The odds certainly had Netflix as the streaming service that would get the first best drama nomination, so Hulu will always have that. And, again, its development has been impressive and is surging.
But it's hard out there in TV Land. Maybe you've heard this? Every platform, no matter how large, is jumping up and down saying, "Look at our shows, look at our shows," while viewers endlessly window-shop the options. Even if Amazon never makes another episode of Patriot, there are two brilliant seasons it will have on its shelf that I'll keep pushing people to discover (as will others), and that discovery adds value to an Amazon subscription. If Terris and Conrad's Perpetual Grace, LTD, so early in its freshman run, starts to get more notice and acclaim, it builds on what Epix is already doing with other shows, particularly Get Shorty. Epix knows as well or better than most that it can't afford too many missteps as it builds its bench and brand. It needs more great shows. It can't merely be the home of good shows.
I'm sure a lot of competitors are wincing at the Handmaid's Tale backlash. The Streaming Wars will not be kind to stumbles.