Difficult Subject Matter
The best storytelling can be challenging, political and divisive. It takes stances on issues. Its characters take risks and carry viewers along to view the consequences. When you agree with the points of view, it affirms your worldview. When your television program diverts away from what you find normal and acceptable, it can change the way you look at the world. It isn’t necessarily easy to watch but can make for very intriguing television. While 2017 has been divisively political from its outset, it seems fitting that some of its newest television offerings are tackling challenging ideas.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (Hulu)
The Handmaid’s Tale is a stunning, faithful and downright scary adaptation of the 1985 Margaret Atwood sci-fi classic. It stars Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as the title character, alongside Gilmore Girls star Alexis Bledel, Chuck star Yvonne Strahovski and Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley. Both the book and show take place in a near-future Boston where infertility is epidemic and fundamentalist Christians have taken over society and enslaved the remaining fertile women, forcing them to become concubines and incubators for infertile, high-ranking couples. Everyone within this society is assigned a role within a household. The commander husband, played by Joseph Fiennes, attempts to conceive a child with the handmaid only at “ceremonies” wherein his wife is present and participating. The handmaid lies in the wife’s lap as conception is attempted. This moment, played out in the pilot episode, is perhaps its most jarring, even though other scenes are more violent and the show’s look and atmosphere is oppressive. Atwood’s world is vivid and frightening; her ideas are weird, difficult, resonant and nightmarish. The fact that the show is watchable and wry - even at its most troubling - is a credit to the show creator Bruce Miller and the director Reed Morano.
THIRTEEN REASONS WHY (Netflix)
When suicide occurs within a family or within a group of friends, there are rarely satisfying answers that can be found - only heartbreak, pain, blame and confusion. Teen suicide can be more tragic as youth hold so much future and promise.
Any show that attempts to focus on this topic is walking a fine line. The new Netflix series, based upon the popular Jay Asher novel, places teen suicide at its center, focusing its entire narrative on why a young, pretty girl named Hannah Baker - played by newcomer Katherine Langford - would slit her wrists.
The show is partly an escapist fantasy for Hannah has narrated her own suicide note into a series of audiotapes, devoting blame for her death to 13 acts from colleagues in her high school. As the protagonist Clay - played with an awkward Everyman charm by Dylan Minnette - puzzles his way through what Hannah says happened to her, the implicated classmates all attempt to control the fallout of their actions.
This whole premise is challenging because it dares to suggest that one person’s suicide is other people’s fault or that life is governed in a cause-and-effect way. It also builds momentum as a mystery as the main character doesn’t listen to the suicide note all at once. The pilot is directed by Oscar winner Tom McCarthy, who also serves as a producer in this gripping drama.
ONE DAY AT A TIME (Netflix)
To end on a brighter note, Netflix also launched the reboot of this Norman Lear sitcom earlier this year, and it is a wonderful, fun show that isn’t afraid to take a stand. Still a sitcom about a divorced mom raising her kids in an apartment with a wacky superintendent named Schneider, this new version stars the great Justina Machado and Oscar winner Rita Moreno.
Machado portrays Penelope Alvarez, a Cuban-American nurse who is recovering from PTSD from an Army deployment to Afghanistan. The scene-stealing Moreno plays her mother Lydia, a beautiful Cuban immigrant who still engages in salsa dancing. Penelope has a daughter and son, both coping with their parents’ recent divorce. The oldest daughter also is a vegan environmentalist questioning her sexuality.
Beyond all of the issues mentioned, which are handled gracefully and organically, the show is also very, very funny. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent and well-meaning show. And its heart is strong.