Hulu’s Handmaid's Tale Win Heralds Television’s New 'Big Three'
Last year, when Jill Soloway accepted her Emmy Award for directing Transparent, she hoisted it in the air and hollered "topple the patriarchy!" At the time, she was talking about trans rights, civil rights, and the feminist movement, mostly on TV but globally, too. Twelve months later, The Handmaid’s Tale, a show where the patriarchy literally rules all and women’s only hope of survival is to topple it, won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama, becoming the first series from a streaming service to do so.
The win didn't just cement Hulu's position alongside Netflix and Amazon as creative class leaders. Along with a strong overall showing by Netflix, it underscored that streaming's Big Three now hold the same vaunted space that the major broadcast networks did for much of the 20th century.
For decades, TV was ruled by NBC, ABC, and CBS—the so-called Big Three—but in the last 15 years, their grip on the industry was loosened thanks to "prestige" shows from the likes of HBO, AMC, and Showtime. Those networks, and others like them, were able to move past TV's traditional gatekeepers by making shows that didn't have to be primetime-friendly (read: full of sex and gunplay and without laugh tracks) and didn't even necessarily have to appease advertisers. Now, completely unencumbered by television scheduling and bolstered by huge Silicon Valley budgets, a new class of networks—led by Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu—is taking over.
All told, streaming services—Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu—took home 32 Emmys this year during yesterday’s ceremony and the Creative Arts awards the weekend before. Granted, HBO by itself collected 29 awards, even without the help of Game of Thrones, but streaming services still drummed up more awards than the original Big Three networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) garnered this time around: 26. It’s also more than the networks that helped launch Hulu—NBC, ABC, Fox—pulled in: 27. And the bulk of those wins came from pushing the kind of norms-toppling programming that helped TV-that’s-not-really-TV stand out in the first place.
During Sunday night’s ceremony, the Television Academy did a fair amount of self-congratulating for the industry's diversity. And while it’s true that a lot of Emmys went to shows that feature women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters, those awards have been slow to come. When Donald Glover won last night for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Atlanta, he became the first black man to do so. When Master of None’s Lena Waithe won the award for best writing for a comedy series, she became the first black woman to do so (presumably the first queer black woman to do so as well). That’s not great, Bob. But the fact of the matter is, Emmys can only be given to shows that actually get made, and in the play-it-safe world of La La Land, it’s been streaming services that make the bolder, braver shows.
Take Netflix, for example. When that service initially got into making TV rather than re-packaging it, it did so with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, which used the story of a middle-class white lady’s time in prison as an opportunity to tell the stories of transwomen and women of color. (Creator Jenji Kohan literally called her protagonist a “Trojan horse.”) The awards followed. Soon after, Transparent made Amazon an awards contender, a show that, in Soloway’s words, finds its heroes in “unlikable Jewish folk, queer folk, trans folk.” And now here comes Hulu, which just planted its own Emmys flag thanks to a show that—its problematic relationship with race notwithstanding—focuses on the ways society can strip women of their agency. It even nabbed an Emmy for star Elisabeth Moss—something not even Mad Men could do.
The Emmys rewarded cable's efforts as well. In her acceptance speech for Big Little Lies, HBO's most-awarded show, Reese Witherspoon encouraged studios to “bring women to the front of their own stories.” It’s a good thing HBO did; otherwise it would’ve been sucking wind compared to its streaming network contemporaries.
It’s also worth noting that while Netflix nabbed a few Creative Arts Emmys for Stranger Things, the show got shut out during the telecast. It also only got one award last night for its expensive critical darling The Crown—for John Lithgow for best supporting actor in a drama series. Meanwhile, its big winners were Master of None, which won for Waithe’s excellent episode about a young woman coming out to her mother, and anthology series Black Mirror, which won two awards for “San Junipero”—an installment that used sci-fi tropes to tell a queer love story in an era that didn’t really have many of those (the 1980s, roughly). Amazon got shut out during Sunday night’s show, but considering Hulu picked up the slack and then some, it should be clear that, creatively, television is evolving to have a new Big Three—none of which are actually, you know, on TV in the traditional sense.
Streaming services have long supported diverse, ambitious, genre-breaking shows is kind of an old tale at this point. What's astounding is that there are now three major players in this space. The easiest joke to make about TV in the last few years has been that there's just too damn much of it to watch, but The Handmaid's Tale's big night just proved there's still room at the top for more. Hulu will obviously see this as a sign that they should do more original programming, audacious original programming. So will their contemporaries—online and off. At the end of last night’s ceremony, when Handmaid’s took home the big award, showrunner Bruce Miller ended his speech by telling the entire television industry that there were goals to accomplish, that there were a lot of tales that—because of suppression or perceived lack of interest—hadn’t been told, and it was time to find places to start telling them. “Go home and get to work,” he said. “We have a lot of things to fight for.”
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