What does it say about modern society that horrifyingly dystopian alternate realities have become hit TV over the last four years?
Dystopian TV is a relatively new phenomenon, unlike the genre’s literary counterpart, which exploded during the war-torn 20th century with Brave New World, It Can’t Happen Here, Atlas Shrugged and Fahrenheit 451. Among that list of classic dystopian fiction also sits Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, from 1985, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, from 1962.
Today, both those novels have been adapted into successful TV dramas that have been expanded into gritty universes beyond the scope of the authors’ original pages. The Man in the High Castle, one of the most popular shows in Amazon’s original repertoire, ended its four-season run in November, while the success of The Handmaid’s Tale (whose showrunner said he’d like to make 10 seasons of the award-winning series) inspired Atwood to write a best-selling sequel that came out in September, which may itself turn into a TV show down the road.
Both shows tread over similar territory: they imagine the fall of the United States government at the hand of a totalitarian regime. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the U.S. is replaced by a country called Gilead, which is run by zealous Christians, while The Man in the High Castle imagines a universe wherein the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided North America between Japanese and German occupation. In both scenarios, Jews wind up dead or in hiding.
So why are these politically charged shows popular now? A simple answer may be that art imitates life. Right now, Western liberalism feels pretty precarious. It is a safer time to be a woman than ever before, for example, which has made it a dangerous time to be a woman. Openness invites anger. When minorities put themselves forward, they become targets.
These shows, which are equal parts parable and omen, bring our collective anxieties to the small screen, envisioning fundamental fears about what could happen. They’re telling us not to take this freedom for granted, while also warning us of what might happen if we invite authoritarians to rise to power. Freedom begs paranoia.
Jewish writers are feeling the same thing. In 2018, a Israeli TV show called Autonomies debuted, with subsequent screenings held at film festivals in New York and France.
Created by the team behind Shtisel, the show depicts a version of Israel that’s divided by religion: a secular Jewish state with Tel Aviv as its capital, and a religious state headquartered in Jerusalem. (Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any legal way Canadians can watch it, though an American adaptation is apparently in the works that will swap secular and religious Jews for Democrats and Republicans.) Like Jews in Gilead, in this dystopian Holy Land, Arabs are nowhere to be seen.
The show could be considered a loose cousin of Israel’s first major dystopian novel, HaDerech LeEin Harod (1984), which also dealt with the religious right overtaking the nation. The concept is never new and always relevant, so long as religion is seen synonymously with censorship.
As our social and political world becomes increasingly divided, with radicals on both sides fighting for control of government and a louder voice in the media, shows like this will probably keep flourishing. That is, assuming they don’t start feeling like documentaries.