Hulu's Political Dramas Are Winning the Streaming Game
Last September, Hulu became the first streaming service to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama when its original series Handmaid's Tale bested traditional network heavy-hitters like Westworld, Better Call Saul, and This Is Us. When it won, it seemed to be in part because it was the right show at the right time: the dystopic tale about women's roles in the near future premiered just a few weeks after the Women's March protests in 2017.
Now Hulu is positioned to do it again.
The Looming Tower, premiering today, is a 10-part series based on Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 480-page investigative book tracing the simultaneous efforts of the FBI and the CIA to track the movements of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in the years leading up to 9/11 and how the agencies often butted heads about sharing information, acts that were highly scrutinized after 9/11. Watching Tower amidst the current news cycle, it's hard not to think of the country's heightened interest in the FBI, caused by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russia's influence on the 2016 election. But while The Handmaid’s Tale was a series about a fictional (if theoretical) future, Tower reminds viewers of a not-too distant past that set the current course of history.
In that regard, Hulu's new show might be even more of-the-moment than Handmaid's Tale, the fortuitous timing of which was at least somewhat an accident. Hulu sent their adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s book straight to series in spring 2016, long before the election of President Trump, long before #MeToo, and long before the treatment of women and their bodies—the central focus of Handmaid’s—became a central focus of the national and global dialogue. When it premiered a year later, it gained traction by being so in-step with what was happening throughout the world. The attention it garnered quickly helped catapult Hulu to 17 million subscribers. That’s still a fraction of the number of consumers who have Netflix and Amazon Prime, but it proved that Hulu could eke out an audience in an increasingly crowded streaming market—and it could do it by focusing on doing one thing and doing it well.
Hulu, of course, still volleys back and forth with Netflix and Amazon on its back-catalog offerings—movies and previous seasons of network TV shows still bounce around between the three, seemingly like ping-pong balls. But original content is how streaming services distinguish themselves. Netflix did it first with shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black and Amazon followed suit with the likes of Transparent. While the other big streaming services duke it out by churning out prestige shows of all genres (from sci-fi to reality programming) and snatching up indie movies, Hulu’s strength is its political dramas (and its political comedies, if you count Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, America). And it is exceptionally strong.
None of this is to say that other streaming services don’t have compelling politically-charged content—Amazon has The Man in the High Castle and Netflix has scores of documentaries and series like The Crown. But with Handmaid’s Tale and now The Looming Tower, Hulu seems to have found a niche where they excel. Whereas opening one’s Netflix app can often feel like opening a cupboard of oddities—Chris Rock! Stranger Things! Something about chefs, I think?!—Hulu seems to be positioning itself as the place to go for a particular type of prestige drama.
In a recent piece in Vanity Fair, Wright discussed the process of bringing his award-winning book to TV and how many before Hulu had come knocking to adapt his work. (He begged them off to collaborate with Gibney with whom he’d worked on Going Clear, which was also based on one of his books, and Futterman.) Acknowledging that the adaptation was coming at a fairly opportune time—”he paranoia, the militarized security state we are building for ourselves—all of that comes out of 9/11,” he said—he also pointed to the platform he and Gibney ultimately worked with to making Looming Tower, and the assurances they were given from the streaming service. “They seemed totally willing to stand beside whatever we did. And they would fight for us,” Wright noted. “But, among the three of us, we were like, ‘What is Hulu? Do you watch it? Do you know anybody who watches it?’” Now that Looming Tower has launched, there’s bound to be a lot more.
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