This had been billed as the most competitive Emmy drama race in years, with 4-5 strong series in contention, each staking its claim at glory. In the end, it was a landslide victory for Hulu/MGM’s rookie The Handmaid’s Tale, which swept the drama field, winning all five categories it was nominated in last night, including Best Drama Series.
Before dominating the Emmys, the Bruce Miller-created show, based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, took over the pop culture conversation, quickly scoring a Saturday Night Live parody. Starting with a 32-year-old novel and having gone through years of development and redevelopment in a different political climate, The Handmaid’s Tale felt surprisingly relevant in Trump America.
“The novel has spoken to these events and these themes for the last 30 years, so I think regardless who was President, the tale of Offred is one that is highly engaging,” Hulu SVP Content Craig Erwich told Deadline last night at Hulu’s post-Emmys celebration. “That said, the conversation is very heightened this year, obviously, and to the extent that Handmaid’s reflected that and moved the conversation forward, I think that’s what led to some of the show’s popularity.”
Handmaid’s Tale is set in a brutally dystopian future America—renamed Gilead—where women are stripped of their names, their families and any sense of agency, left to fight for their lives and the faint hope of a brighter future. The female drama swept every female acting Emmy category: best lead, supporting and guest actress (Elisabeth Moss, Ann Dowd, Alexis Bledel), as well as writing and directing for drama series.
The timeliness is especially striking when taking into account that Atwood was born in 1939.
“I’m a child of the war, and therefore, I was always very interested in totalitarian dictatorships and how they work,” she said. “At the time I was writing it, the Cold War was still going on, and America was seen as a beacon of liberty and democracy. But underneath America, there was always a sublayer. Those people didn’t have power then, but they were already talking about what they would like to do if they got it. And now, they have more of it. They don’t have all of it, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and this show wouldn’t be on television because it would have been censored.”
But it is on television — albeit in a form that did not exist in 1985, via online streaming — something Atwood said she’d never imagined. “Back in 1985, they didn’t have this kind of series,” she said. “There was a feature film (1990’s The Handmaid’s Tale starring Natasha Richardson), but as we’ve seen, it’s sort of hard to get something that big into 90 minutes.”
The Handmaid’s Tale series was originally set up awhile back at Showtime with The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken as the writer.
Meanwhile, Miller had been a huge fan of Atwood’s novel since his college days, always with an eye toward adapting it for TV.
When MGM took a new stab at bringing the book to TV, this time at Hulu, Miller saw an opening as Chaiken was not available, “doing a little show called Empire.” (She serves as showrunner on the hit Fox drama.) However, he knew that he was not an obvious choice for the job.
“They were looking for a female showrunner, which I completely understand and agree with, and if I didn’t want the job so much, I would have been completely on their side,” Miller said. “But on every show, you start with some strengths and weaknesses, and that was one of my deficits, so I just waited until they were ready to hear my take.”
Indeed, Hulu did meet with female writer-producers. Eventually, Miller got his shot.
“I went in and told them the story of the show, what I thought it would be, but all the way along, I’ve had to buttress the weakness of being a man telling a story about a woman, and inside a woman’s head and heart, and I think that you always have to do that as a writer,” he said. “You’re never writing stories about yourself, so you’re always having to get into somebody else’s head anyway.”
Hulu took a chance on Miller, a journeyman TV drama writer-producer who had worked on series ranging from ER and Everwood to Eureka and The 100.
“Handmaid’s Tale was part of a strategy to produce shows that were going to resonate with the popular culture, be part of the conversation, and feel like television events,” Erwich said. Hulu was seeking its next event series to follow J.J. Abrams and Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and “this felt like that, just given the scope of the world and the thematic underpinnings of it.”
“There were multiple networks that wanted it, we were very aggressive to get it—and quite frankly, after that, Bruce handed in some material where there didn’t even need to be a conversation about it,” Erwich added. “The scripts were so good, he had such a vision to build upon Margaret’s vision, and it was a no-brainer.”
The gamble paid off, and The Handmaid’s Tale became the first streaming series to win the Best Drama Series Emmy, delivering Miller his first two Emmy nominations and wins, for best series and best writing, for the pilot. Hulu and MGM also took a chance on a novice TV director, Reed Morano, who became the first woman in 22 years to win directing for a drama series Emmy, also for the pilot.
“It’s the golden age of TV, and there are so many great shows out there that you really have to take a shot at standing out and meaning something to people,” Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins said. “Obviously, The Handmaid’s Tale really resonated in ways that we certainly couldn’t have imagined when we launched it.”
Erwich and Hopkins noted that The Handmaid’s Tale is indicative of the type of series in Hulu’s pipeline. “We have The Looming Tower, which is a television show that’s about the war on terror—an issue that all citizens of the world face, certainly something that I think will get people talking,” Erwich said. “We have Castle Rock, from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King, which is a once-in-a-lifetime illustration of an original story that takes place with a lot of original characters from all of Stephen King’s works, so we’re going to keep people talking.”
As for The Handmaid’s Tale, the big Emmy celebration will be brief as the series goes back into production next week.
“There’s a lot of nooks and crannies in Margaret’s world that Bruce is going to dive into and expand,” Erwich said about Season 2. “You’re just going to continue to see that when your life is on the line, people do extreme things, and the extreme things they do, in terms of the characters and their relationships, is going to keep you on the edge of your seat.”