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It has been a year filled with come-from-behind upsets — the Patriots won the Super Bowl, Moonlight took best picture and Trump is in the White House — but a new bar could be set if The Handmaid’s Tale wins the drama series Emmy and, in so doing, delivers Hulu a major series award before either of its higher-profile streaming competitors (Netflix and Amazon) manage to snag one. And you know what? It just might happen.
Handmaid’s was adapted from Margaret Atwood‘s 1985 dystopian novel about a totalitarian society where infertility has skyrocketed and women are renamed and made to serve as sex slaves — or handmaids — for the ruling elite. (Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred, formerly June, who is one of those women; she also is one of the show’s producers). Its 10 hourlong episodes didn’t roll out at once as binge-friendly Netflix and Amazon shows do, but instead appeared weekly from April 26 to June 14. This may have helped it grow a following and become part of the cultural conversation. That, and the fact that it was unspooling just as the Trump administration was coming to power — and with it, what Moss described to me as an “incredible reversal of fortune and reversal in rights” for women. This context turned Moss’ character, shrouded beneath the white bonnet and red cloak of all handmaids, into a symbol of the resistance.
In an eerie but impactful promotion, Hulu dispatched clusters of female actors dressed as handmaids to Austin during SXSW (March 10) and then, the week before the show premiered, to Washington, New York and L.A., prompting a social media explosion. And then a funny thing happened: Groups of women in no way affiliated with the show began turning up to silently protest attacks on women’s rights — at the Missouri State Capitol on May 3, in Ohio on June 13 and on Capitol Hill on June 27 — wearing handmaid costumes they made or found online.
Lest there be any doubt about just how viral Handmaid’s went, it was sent up in a Saturday Night Live skit on May 6, was the subject of two New York Times op-eds on May 24, was parodied in Funny or Die videos on June 2 and June 13 and, come July and August, was represented — usually by Moss’ face — on the cover of virtually every major publication read by people in the entertainment industry.
Along the way, it picked up unsolicited endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Chrissy Teigen, Emma Watson, Kit Harington, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, Tituss Burgess, Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, Sarah Silverman, Freida Pinto and Mindy Kaling. And May 2, during a speech at a Planned Parenthood event in New York, none other than Hillary Clinton touted the series: “I am not suggesting this dystopian future is around the corner, but this show has prompted important conversations about women’s rights and autonomy.”
All of this could come into play when TV Academy members fill out their ballots after Aug. 14, because it reinforces the idea that Handmaid’s, unlike most of its competitors, is about topics of real-world import, and people like to feel that their vote makes a difference.
Part of the reason Handmaid’s hasn’t been higher on some pundits’ Emmys forecasts is that, before its huge showing at the Television Critics Association Awards on Aug. 5 (where it garnered program of the year and outstanding achievement in drama honors), it hadn’t won anything. But that’s because, some forget, the show wasn’t eligible for the Golden Globes (where Netflix’s The Crown won), the SAG Awards or the Producers Guild Awards (Netflix’s Stranger Things won both). But now, it seems well positioned to make a run at the gold, heading into voting with 13 nominations (bested only by Westworld‘s 22 and Stranger Things‘ 18 among drama series nominees), including four acting noms (from the drama contingent, only This Is Us, with seven, has more) and directing and writing noms (which fellow nominees This Is Us and House of Cards cannot claim); it’s the only drama series with two directing noms.
Whether or not Handmaid’s winds up the big winner, kudos must be given to the scrappy folks behind its publicity and marketing campaigns who helped ignite this fire and kept it burning. Hulu is a bare-bones operation, at least in comparison to its more prominent rivals. It didn’t rent the Hollywood Athletic Club between April 18 and 28, as Amazon did, nor a 24,000-square-foot exhibition space between May 7 and June 12, as Netflix did, in order to boost its product. Instead, it had its official TV Academy FYC event in L.A. on May 1, it sent out mailers like everyone else, it hosted screenings and panels for members of several guilds, and it organized a screening of its final episode for 1,000 fans at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood.
In other words, its resonance with voters is mostly organic, which is a rare thing these days — and, in my humble opinion, merits a “praise be.”
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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