There's a new season of the Handmaid's Tale but suddenly everyone thinks it's tiresome

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

I’ve never watched a single episode of the Handmaid’s Tale. Fortunately we don’t live in a dystopian society where I’m forced to watch it. But over the past four years there were certainly lots of moments when it felt like it had become central to our national conversation. Remember all of this? (These are in chronological order.)

There’s a lot more of this but you get the idea. In addition to all the protesters there were plenty of opinion pieces trying to draw comparisons between the book/show and Trump’s America. The Washington Post called it “essential viewing for our fractured culture.” Others argued we were already living in Gilead, the fictional dystopian version of the U.S. in the book.

But something curious seems to be happening now. Season four of the show recently started streaming but suddenly a lot of people are writing about what a tiresome, grueling bore this show is. From the Washington Post piece titled “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ used to feel provocative. Now it’s just exhausting.

There’s a scene in the newest season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (be warned, vague spoilers and many trigger warnings ahead), in which a character has a cloth placed over her face, and while watching it I thought, What’s next? Waterboarding?

And then, yes! It was waterboarding.

By then, the episode had already included a grisly fingernails-and-pliers scene. The character had already been locked in a box and hit in the face and shamed and berated and gaslit. What else was left?

A show that began four seasons ago as an exploration of life under a fictional patriarchal theocracy now, in Season 4 — premiering Wednesday on Hulu — sometimes feels more like an extended game of Bad-Libs:

[Child bride] encounters [man who participated in her gang rape] while plotting to destroy [underground sex-trafficking ring], which is naturally run out of [swanky erstwhile country club].

Various authors seem to be struggling with whether or not to keep watching a show that no longer seems to capture the zeitgeist. This piece at NBC News even explains why.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” 2017 debut benefited from its timing: That initial season — which was a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the original 1985 novel, chronicling a religious theocracy that rises from the ashes of the American democracy — arrived in the early days of the Trump administration, when his conservative bent and evangelical vice president were seen as frightening potential harbingers of what was to come. Season two premiered with plotlines that echoed the growing authoritarianism of the administration, while season three’s story of stolen children came as immigration at the border surged and tales of adoptions of kids of deported parents and disappeared children were in the news.

But then the pandemic upended filming for season four, pushing its premiere into a post-Trump (and still-mid-pandemic) world. Now, “The Handmaid’s Tale” almost feels like a relic of another time, from an era in which prestige TV defined itself as “art” by forcing viewers to bask in nightmares. And, after a year of nightmares, that feels a lot less artful.

Over at the LA Times, their TV critic has written a piece justifying why she hasn’t given up on the series yes (though she’s clearly tempted). She starts by admitting this was anti-Trump catharsis for a lot of viewers, a kind of dystopian fantasy for the resistance.

Hulu’s hourlong drama, created by Bruce Miller and based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, once painted a frighteningly plausible picture of America after a second civil war…

The series, which deviated from Atwood’s book after its first season, was always just a step ahead of today’s headlines: The state’s targeting of journalists. Children separated from their parents by military forces. A country divided by politicians who weaponized religion. It was too grim for some audiences but for the rest of us, this beautifully shot, written, performed and directed drama was cathartic…

It’s understandable why former fans of “The Handmaid’s Tale” checked out of the series by the end of Season 3. Our country was a mess, so why watch it fall apart on TV? They could not stop June from heading back into the fray one more time. In some respects, I share their frustration with her and with the series’ brutality. But as much as I wanted June to leave Gilead, I also am glad she stayed to fight another day.

The thrill is gone but the fight goes on or something like that. Perhaps the clearest example of how things have changed comes from Slate. Back in 2018 the site’s TV critic wrote a piece titled “I can’t watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” now: It’s so brilliant and relevant that I can’t stand it.” That’s a pretty good summary of the contents. She praises the show “two thumbs up” but says she struggles to praise it more because it’s just too close to reality.

Jump forward to yesterday and the same TV critic has a piece titled “Hulu’s tiresome ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ should learn from the sins of ‘Planet of the Apes’” in which she compares the show she’d raved about two years ago to a short-lived TV spinoff from 1974.

Time was that “The Handmaid’s Tale” won plaudits for its eerie relevance. During the previous administration it made our fears about democracy’s slide into right-wing fascism real, giving that anxiety red robes and wings. Now its primary function is to showcase performances its stars can submit for Emmys and Globes…

Very little of the bombastic white feminism that drove me away from the third season has been ameliorated. If anything, June’s successfully shipping more than 80 Gilead children to Canada along with a number of adults has given her even more of a Moses complex.

Maybe the show really is on a downhill slide. As I said I haven’t watched it. But you definitely get the impression the joy has gone out of it and the show’s brutality seems less justifiable for viewers who had previously praised it as hitting the nail on the head. Has the show actually changed or has the occupant of the White House?

Speaking of which, whatever happened to the Women’s March? Remember when that was quite literally the biggest protest in the country? Haven’t heard about them much lately and I wonder if it’s not for the same reason.