TV Club

The Handmaid’s Tale would have been great even without Trump.

The Handmaid’s Tale would have been great without Trump. Saturday Night Live, not so much.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulu; Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

Hey, fellow denizens of what’s really the Bad Place:

I remember the first time I watched The Handmaid’s Tale pilot, well in advance of the show debuting, before Trump was even inaugurated. There was that sense you occasionally get from publicists that this was something worth watching. And, yes, that sense is sometimes bullshit, but in this case it wasn’t. Everything about the show, from Elisabeth Moss’ gorgeously interior performance to Reed Morano’s unlike-anything-else-on-TV direction, felt like something new in that way you sometimes get from a great pilot.

In retrospect, some of the things that wouldn’t work quite as well about the series (like cloying, overobvious song choices) were present from the very first episode, too. And certainly, I get the people who feel that the series never quite matched its first three Morano-directed episodes. (Then again, she’s such an out-of-nowhere find that I don’t know how it could have matched them.) But I was on board the whole way through that first season, even in episodes that didn’t work as well, because they were convinced what I most needed was a deep dive into the interiority of June’s tormented lover Nick.

The series reminds me, simultaneously, of the previous two dramas to win the Emmy in their first season: Mad Men and Homeland. It’s easy to see how the show could follow the path of either. On the one hand, its first season flaws (like those songs and its weird glibness about race) are ultimately smaller problems in the scope of what the show has achieved, and it might easily correct those flaws in a second season, as Mad Men ultimately did, doing away with its most overobvious “Hey it’s the ’60s!” moments. The way the series constructs episodes to end on telling images and moments, while still providing just enough of the propulsive feel of a soap operatic thriller is very Mad Men–esque (and how grateful am I that its episodes actually are episodes).

But as it enters Season 2, it no longer has Margaret Atwood’s book to lean on, just as Homeland eventually abandoned the Israeli series that inspired it completely (though, to be clear, Homeland’s connection to Hatufim was always tenuous). And it’s easy to see an overeager Hulu meddling in what worked in Season 1, as essentially everybody assumes happened with Homeland and Showtime, or the sheer weight of the show’s accidental connection to our moment in time overwhelming it, just as Homeland tried for a while there to be the Series About the War on Terror and stumbled badly. (I think it recovered, but it took a while.)

But I choose to believe Handmaid’s Tale is going to be just fine. Over the course of that first season, you could essentially see the series figuring out how to tell stories within its universe in real time, and after a mild midseason lull, its final two episodes were among the strongest. Plus, while the show has adapted much of the plot of Atwood’s book, the plot was always the least interesting thing about it. The characters and world have always held the most intrigue to me, at least. And so much about how the show works purposely stands in the way of how other TV shows have fallen apart. Only on The Handmaid’s Tale is the improbable survival of characters who should die a storytelling masterstroke, because their survival is usually a fate worse than death.

Yet I’ve often seen Handmaid’s Tale written off by skeptics as a show that people like simply because they’re part of the hashtag Resistance, and I want to yell at them about that very first screening I had of it. I don’t know that the show deserved eight Emmys either (though, honestly, given the academy’s bizarre nominations, maybe it did), but it’s not as if there wasn’t anything there, or it was boosted solely by its timeliness. It would have still been a good show in that other world where Hillary Clinton won, because most of the qualities that made it good are endemic to what it is.

If you really want to talk about a show with substantial Emmy success that underlines the emptiness of embracing that which makes Trump mad, then look at Saturday Night Live, which has had a blustering, ultimately empty year, typified by Alec Baldwin’s blustering, empty performance as Trump. Sure, the show has had some good sketches and bits in 2017; it always does. But the degree to which the website-reading denizens of our great nation descend, en masse, every Sunday morning to watch the latest weak ripostes against the president, most of which simply depict him as a tasteless dullard and idiot, weirdly infuriates me. There’s a smug superiority to it that neither understands what makes Trump appealing nor what makes him dangerous. It was like somebody had taken what Twitter leftists mean when they say neoliberalism and given it a TV show, all sneering, preening mugging, for an audience assumed to think Trump is a buffoon worth laughing at but not assumed to be personally affected by his disastrous policy proposals.

But laughing at any president is a necessary way to blow off steam in the U.S. Fortunately for all of us, others in the late-night world were handling this task far better. I’ve really come to like Stephen Colbert’s show, which is a little like somebody gave a cool dad a late-night talk show but, heaven help me, I like cool dads. I’ve mostly lost patience for info-comedy (though I recognize both John Oliver and Seth Meyers as doing great work with the form), but Samantha Bee’s pure, white-hot rage often felt cleansing in the way that satire can at its best.

An even more intriguing late-night depiction of the president existed over on Comedy Central, where Anthony Atamanuik’s work as Trump on The President Show was all over the place, but could draw actual blood when it hit its mark. My favorite sketch came in the show’s Christmas special, which concluded with, of all things, a riff on the movie Magnolia, in which Trump and all the members of his inner circle began singing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” without changing the lyrics to be “funny” or anything like that. The circle of singers gradually broadened to include more and more of the show’s bit players, from Democrats to “regular” Americans, and its true bile became clear. The “joke” was, in essence, a Family Guy cutaway gag. Hey, do you remember this moment in this movie? Wouldn’t it be weird if Trump was doing it? But the longer it ran, the more I realized the show was going to perform the whole song, the more I realized that the “joke” was that Trump isn’t some aberration. He’s a full-scale manifestation of who America (or, perhaps more properly, white America) is, and even if you don’t support him, you’re still along for the ride. It’s not going to stop, until you wise up.

Perhaps I only found this as funny, bitter, and poignant as I did because I spent a lot of time this year watching Fox News (for a piece to be published at Vox) and realizing just how many of my fellow Americans wanted to live in a safe, fear-filled bubble, where nothing is every wrong with you and everything is wrong with a them who changes every week and sometimes every day. The President Show wasn’t great TV. It wasn’t even consistent TV. But in its best moments, it found something darker underneath our need to keep going on as if everything is normal. If all of us, this Christmas, suddenly looked to camera and started singing an Aimee Mann song, well, I don’t know that I’d be surprised any more.

Look at how short our time is growing! And we’ve barely touched on so many interesting shows. It really does feel like it’s time for The Good Place to have its moment in the sun. What did you all think of it? (I loved it, and those who complain Season 2 is not as good as Season 1 will be cast out into the darkness.)

Holy forking shirtballs!

Todd