Kindred review: Hulu adaptation solves the Handmaid's Tale problem

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As I prepared to watch the new show on FX and Hulu membersI kept thinking of another great Hulu literary adaptation from a few seasons ago, The Servant’s Tale🇧🇷 I was worried that memberswhose eight-episode first season is currently streaming on Hulu, would be very close to servant’s talein a bad way.

Both shows are based on notoriously harrowing novels about violent oppression. members comes from Octavia Butler’s visceral and haunting story of a black woman in the 1970s traveling back to a plantation in the antebellum south, while The Servant’s Tale is based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a white woman trapped in reproductive slavery under a dystopian theocracy in 1980s America. These books are disturbing reads that delve deep into the violence and horror of their worlds, but when The Servant’s Tale made its way to the screens, it did so with diminishing returns.

The first three episodes were brilliant pieces of television, so disturbing they felt like watching a frozen scream. But at the end of the first season, servant’s tale already it felt like it had little to say about the violence it was portraying. It began to look like she was simply reveling in the atrocities she put on screen, which had become nothing more than traumatic pornography. Later seasons haven’t changed that narrative.

How, I wondered, could members avoid the same trap? membersThe story of is built on the violence practiced on the body of a black woman, as well as on the violence that she witnesses and is an accomplice. Once all these horrors were put on the screen, what could stop members to pull one servant’s tale🇧🇷

A lot, as it turns out. Under showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (watchmakers), FX and Hulu members seems, if anything, to have learned the lesson of The Servant’s Tale too well. The eight-episode first season, which covers the first third of Butler’s novel, is restricted to a glitch. The result is not even close to the brightness of The Servant’s Talethe first three episodes of – but it also looks much more equipped for a long, convincing run than its predecessor.

by Jacob-Jenkins members centers on Dana (Mallori Johnson), an aspiring TV writer who has just moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2016. Orphaned Dana is preoccupied with navigating her strained relationship with her overprotective aunt (Eisa Davis) and a A budding romantic connection with sweet-natured Kevin White (Micah Stock), but the world isn’t about to let her make these everyday problems her focus. Instead, every few hours, Dana is taken back to a massive plantation in 19th century Virginia, surrounded by people who believe they have the right to treat her like property.

Quickly, Dana realizes that she is being pulled into the past by Rufus Weylin (David Alexander Kaplan), the white son of the ranchers. Rufus is one of Dana’s ancestors, and whenever her life is in danger, Dana is transported to the past to rescue him. To stop time travel, she realizes that she will have to ensure that Rufus lives long enough for his next ancestor to be born.

Central to the horror of Butler’s novel is the nauseating and disturbing realization that Rufus will father that child by a black woman whom he is likely to enslave. Dana, in other words, was forced to be complicit in her ancestor’s rape in order to ensure her very existence.

Meanwhile, to survive, Dana must live as a slave on Weylin’s plantation. With no control over her past comings and goings, she watches as the people enslaved by the Weylins are beaten, deprived of food and forced into degrading parades. What, she wonders, will protect her from the same fate while she’s trapped in the past?

This is disturbing, but Jacob-Jenkins sketches it out lightly; probably, in most cases, very lightly. Butler’s depiction of the Weylin plantation was disturbingly visceral, but on television we have so little detail that the plantation doesn’t seem inhabited. Instead, it becomes the stage for a morality play, a cardboard backdrop inhabited by cartoonish figures of evil.

Dana also feels underwritten in this version of the story. Johnson plays the role with incredible toughness, masking a quivering-jaw vulnerability, but the writing is so vague that we have little sense of Dana as an individual human being beyond her extraordinary circumstances. Adding to the haziness of her characterization is the fact that her most emotional moments come in a confusing and strange subplot that Jacob-Jenkins added to the story in bewildering ways. Dana now encounters her long-lost mother in the past, in a storyline that is positioned as central to Dana’s emotional arc, despite appearing to exist primarily to simplify exposition about Dana’s rules of time travel.

More compelling is Dana’s surprisingly tender love story with Kevin, who finds himself dragged into the past along with her. Whereas Butler’s version of the story sees Kevin and Dana as a couple, Jacob-Jenkins makes them a new relationship. Much of the first episode actually takes the form of a Kevin and Dana rom-com, complete with cute and gentle banter about Dynasty reruns. It’s a sweet choice that grounds the terrors to come in a milder present tense.

Once they are back in the past, members strays too far Kevin finds himself utterly unprepared to navigate a world that Dana understands and is able to operate in minutes: he never had to emotionally consider what the prewar South was like or how he would have to behave in such a world. However, no matter how bad Kevin’s impression of a 19th century gentleman is (he took a vow of poverty, he claims at one point, to explain why he keeps showing up to his lands in shabby T-shirts and no shoes), the Weylins still make him a favorite guest. No matter the year, Kevin is always protected by his whiteness and always feels guilty about it.

Kevin is not, however, able to protect Dana so much, which is the core of this story. Dana, it turns out, can only travel back to the present when she is in genuine fear for her life. This in turn means that as she slowly grows used to the horrors of her past, it becomes harder and harder for her to leave him behind. At first, the sight of a gun sends her screaming back to the safety of her living room, but over time, casual threats of violence become a routine part of her life. They can’t scare her like they used to.

The problem that stops Dana in time is a close cousin of the problem that made Dana The Servant’s Tale It starts good and turns bad: with time, violence loses its power to shock in a productive way. It becomes empty of any meaning other than the violence itself, suffered by itself. On television, the result is dull and unpleasant; for Dana, the result is horrible, painful and dangerous.

But the fact that members understands this trap so well says a lot about his ability to portray violence without falling into the trap of miserable pornography. The spectacle of violence and danger in this show doesn’t just exist as spectacle, but inherently as engines of the story, dragging Dana back and forth throughout the story. When members finally ramps up its violence in the season finale to a gruesome whipping scene, the moment can’t feel gratuitous because it shapes the story so viscerally.

members in its first season it has problems, big ones. Its central character is underdeveloped and its world is still unlived. But it nailed the pacing problem exactly: it started slow and it’s building. Hopefully, it laid the groundwork for a very good second season.