The Handmaid's Tale Just Made Hulu a Prestige TV Player
When Hulu made its debut nearly a decade ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking its semi-cryptic name was actually an acronym for “Here’s, Uh, Lotsa Unrelated stuff!” For its first few years, the streaming service’s offerings were hilariously scattershot, a mix of rando ‘80s sitcoms, oddball documentaries, and some cool Criterion Collection samurai movies—none of which you could find too easily. Over the next few years, Hulu’s offerings expanded to include old episodes of South Park, new episodes of The Mindy Project, and high-end series like The Path and an adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (plus a lot of early originals you likely forgot about). But the service’s identity remained confusing: Just Hu was Hulu, anyway?
With this morning’s Emmy nomination announcements—during which the network earned 13 nods for The Handmaid’s Tale—the answer become way more clear. Thanks to Tale, Hulu has finally jumped into the prestige-TV pigpile that also includes streaming competitors like Amazon and Netflix (not to mention HBO, which got 22 nods for Westworld alone). And it's not just the sheer number of nominations that’s so impressive; it’s also where they landed. Tale found a spot in the incredibly competitive Best Drama Series race, which also includes Stranger Things and This is Us. And Elisabeth Moss’ nod for Best Actress in a Drama Series could very well give the service its first-ever major category victory (Moss, who got career-high reviews for Tale, was nominated six times for Mad Men, but never won). In the streaming era, all you need is one pop-culture-shifting show to change viewers’ perceptions forever (think Netflix with House of Cards, or Amazon’s Transparent). With The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu has gone from “that place where you sometimes watch old Happy Days episodes" to an upscale service worthy of attention (and accolades).
Another major winner today: Netflix, which landed a staggering 91 nominations, making the streaming service second only to HBO. The company was no doubt assisted by an elaborate, seemingly endless awards-season campaign that filled the Los Angeles skyline with “For Your Consideration” ads, and filled prospective Emmy voters’ calendars with meet-and-greet events. But ultimately, Netflix’s biggest asset was its own programming: Master of None, Black Mirror, The Crown, House of Cards, Stranger Things, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie, and Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th were all zeitgeist-gobbling hits that would likely would have been nominated even without the fanfare. (As for streaming competitor Amazon—which produces far fewer hours of original TV content than Netflix—it earned a solid 16 nominations, including nods for Transparent and Catastrophe).
The Emmy announcements were also notable for a few absences: Game of Thrones didn’t qualify this year, thanks to the award show’s window of eligibility, which may be why Westworld wound up with such a strong tally. Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show was ignored (too much Trump-tussling?), and previous winner Girls was left out of the Best Comedy Series race (too much rump-hustling?). But new series like Atlanta, Feud: Bette and Joan, and This Is Us had strong showings, proving that Emmy voters are willing to embrace new series—a far cry from the ‘90s, when it sometimes seemed like the same reliable network shows and big-name stars were rubber-stamp-rewarded year after year.
What’s most impressive about this year’s noms, however, is the way they demonstrate just how malleable the very definition of “television” has become. The Emmys have room for not only a streaming-service hit like The Handmaid’s Tale, but also a viral-video-series-turned-comedy-smash (Billy on the Street), a Squarespace commercial starring John Malkovich, the opening credits for Stranger Things, SamanthaBee.com, and a few virtual reality experiences. Unlike other award competitions, it's an all-encompassing, free-wheeling overview of all manner of delights and distractions, no matter the size of the screen they played on.