Hulu's dramatic series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale has been alternately praised and judged for just how dark its subject matter is, especially as the real world we are watching it has become increasingly darker, as well. But even though the subject matter can be hard to watch, the artistry that is put into the show is equally hard to look away from.
From creator and showrunner Bruce Miller and starring Elisabeth Moss (who also executive produces and directs) as the titular handmaid June Osborne, the series is faithful to Atwood's story of a conservative regime that took over part of America when infertility rates hit an all-time high. Under new law, those living in the central setting of the republic of Gilead fall into a caste system with wealthy and powerful men called commanders and their dutiful stay-at-home wives enslaving the rare fertile women as handmaids in order to continue to populate their society.
June is assigned to Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and given the Gileadian name Offred to further strip her of her identity, but she never loses her dignity. Determined to save her daughter from growing up within this new world order, she fights back within her own household and in much larger ways, including successfully leading the escape of dozens of children (though not her own) and eventually even killing Fred.
Over the course of the seasons, the show has expanded the world well beyond the pages of Atwood's story, including exploring refugee life in Canada for a number of characters, the ways in which the new regime in New England differs from other parts of the country (such as Washington, D.C.), and characters' ideas of evolving the Gileadian system. But even as the plot marches forward, arguably towards the events of Atwood's 2019 follow-up novel The Testaments, which Miller is adapting as a follow-up series for the same streamer, the themes and emotional center has always stayed true to the source material.
The Handmaid's Tale depicts a lot of violence against women and the stripping of fundamental rights from body autonomy to reading, which makes it a show about trauma and can be triggering for a lot of audience members. But in centering characters that are fighting back in a variety of ways, it also makes it a show about resilience and, oddly, hope. And that is something audiences can always use more of. So, here, Metacritic highlights 10 shows like The Handmaid's Tale in that vein of survival tales to binge while you wait for the sixth and final season.
Best for: Fans of complex character studies and powerful female voices both in front of and behind the camera
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Michaela Coel created this limited series that she also stars in based on a real-life experience of sexual assault. In the series, her character Arabella is a celebrated young writer, but after a night out that takes a violent turn, she is forever changed. Leaning on her friends for support and to help her put the pieces of what happened that night together in full, the show offers a rich and nuanced picture of surviving and overcoming trauma. The series won a number of awards, including an Emmy for Coel for Outstanding Writing of a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.
"A thought-provoking work that should make us consider our own relationship to trauma, experienced by ourselves or others, as well as hopefully this new cultural awakening to the many, many different kinds of sexual assault." — Allison Keene, Paste Magazine
Best for: Fans of alternate history and deep dives into the rise of fascism
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Based on Philip Roth's 2004 novel of the same title, this six-episode limited series is similar to The Handmaid's Tale in how it approaches problematic politics from a deeply personal place of following the characters that are harmed the most by the policies. A major difference, though, is that this examines an alternate past, not a potential future: Set in the 1940s, Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole) becomes president, turning the country into a fascist state which has painful repercussions for the Levin family, a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey.
"The dialogue can lean too heavily towards exposition, and there is a staginess about some of the scenes. But as an alternative history lesson, it is frightening and compelling." — Anita Singh, The Telegraph
Best for: Fans of Atwood's writing and psychological approaches to murder mysteries
Where to watch: Netflix
Writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron adapted Atwood's 1996 novel of the same title into a limited series that explores whether the titular character (played by Sarah Gadon) really committed the two murders she has been convicted of. It's based on the true story of a 19th century woman named Grace Marks, though the adaptation dives into a psychology one probably can't be sure about when it comes to the real woman since she is so long gone and records from her time are spotty at best. The show explores the hard circumstances in Grace's past, including childhood sexual abuse and solo immigration, as well as manipulation from men around her, in a quest to determine whether she really did what she was found guilty of.
"Polley's script is sturdy, occasionally leaning too heavily on underlining Atwood's themes to make sure they come across when viewers don't have constant access to Grace's inner monologue. But it's Harron's direction and Gadon's performance that truly drive the work." — Emily St. James, Vox
Best for: Fans of post-apocalyptic tales that are not completely dour
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Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 novel of the same title was turned into a limited series that flips back and forth between the times before a flu pandemic caused the collapse of civilization to the after. Released in 2021, the series might have served as a cautionary tale to some viewers as they were still waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic. But what appears ominous in some story points (such as the traveling performance troupe coming across a violent cult) ends up delivering poignancy and positive messages about the importance of community, even when the world as you know it ends.
"It's a series that demands both close attention and a passive willingness to let the words and meticulously crafted images wash over you, a collage that gradually forms itself but still demands your engagement." — Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
Best for: Fans of female-focused ensemble dramas with mystery elements
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If there's one thing The Handmaid's Tale teaches you, it's that trauma stays with you and can change you. That's clear in June's actions, and that's certainly clear in Shauna's (Melanie Lynskey) actions in this Showtime drama. But she's far from the only one. In high school, Shauna's soccer team got stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash, and the surviving kids (and their chaperone) experienced hardships that tested who they thought they were and who they could become. They were eventually rescued, but 25 years later, what they went through still weighs heavily. Things get worse when one of the survivors seemingly dies by suicide and a core group of four — Shauna, Taissa (Tawny Cypress), Natalie (Juliette Lewis), and Misty (Christina Ricci) — to get messages from someone claiming to know secrets that went on out there, forcing them to come together to take down the threat and hopefully finally heal a bit in the process. The mystery elements of this show go beyond what really happened out there to also include some potential supernatural things, offering a fun level of escapism, even though there is carnage. The first season alone earned Lynskey a Critics Choice Award and a Hollywood Critics Association Television Award for her performance.
"Don't be fooled by its teen show trappings: Yellowjackets is a pitch black parable of human desperation that will creep its way under your skin given the chance." — Caroline Framke, Variety
Best for: Those who like their dystopias in shorter doses and with a heavily technological bent
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Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones' episodic anthology series imagines a new dystopian in each installment. Where society fell in The Handmaid's Tale because of fear and corrupt politics, here, the issue is usually with technology that presents itself as an advancement but negatively affects humanity in sometimes unexpected ways. The "Nosedive" episode, for example, explores obsession with rating every encounter one has and how that alters a person's ability to be truthful, while the "Arkangel" episode depicts parental controls and censorship going way too far. The later seasons arguably dip a little further from dystopia than the early run, even offering some happy endings, such as how a video game in "Striking Vipers" allows two friends to explore a deeper and unexpected relationship and how an abusive boss gets comeuppance through his own creation in "USS Callister." Black Mirror has won multiple Emmy Awards, including the Outstanding Television Movie trophy for episodes "San Junipero" and "USS Callister."
"The sort of brainy science fiction to which many aspire and few consistently deliver." — Brian Lowry, CNN
Best for: Fans of alternate history storytelling that spans decades and/or fans of the space program
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If what you enjoy most about The Handmaid's Tale is the idea of an alternate world with a sprawling ensemble, but you're looking for something that spends more time celebrating humanity than showing the worst of it, consider For All Mankind. The series begins in 1969 when the Soviets beat the United States to the moon, setting off a chain of events that shift the future of the space race and the lives of the ensemble characters. Over the three seasons so far, the story jumps in time multiple times, bringing the show into the 1990s and introducing the idea of privatization and interest in colonizing Mars to the challenges NASA faces. But although this very unique setting is the backdrop, the characters' individual journeys, both personal and professional, take the focus more often than not. It's nowhere near as bleak as The Handmaid's Tale, though the struggles of reconnecting and reuniting with loved ones are prevalent in both (just in very different ways). It also offers a look at what women could have accomplished in this world if things had been different from our own timeline. The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Innovation in Interactive Programming.
"The show also goes small, depicting how national expectations roil the lives of those on the inside. While this dimension of the series isn't as strong as its alt-history, this is still a project by Ronald D. Moore, who set the space opera standard with the revival of Battlestar Galactica." — Aaron Barnhart, Primetimer
Best for: Fans of witty commentary on the plight of women through the ages
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Another series set in the past, rather than a potential future, Harlots follows female sex workers in 1760 London. While the way in which these characters come to their work is not the same as the enslavement and rape of the handmaids in The Handmaid's Tale, there are similarities with The Handmaid's Tale's Jezebel's, an elite club where commanders can have even more sexual fun. In the case of Harlots, there are rival madams in Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) and a group of women who work for them who have rich stories of their own, whether they're focused on leaving their own past pain behind or trying to find ways to rise in power.
"Shocking and fascinating, Harlots will keep you watching not for the sex and nudity but for the women trying not to sell their souls along with their bodies." — Gail Pennington, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Best for: Fans of troubled teenage protagonists and experimental therapy
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This two-season drama feels like an adaptation of a young adult novel, but it's actually an original creation for television. The ensemble series starts with a plane full of teenage girls from very different individual walks of life crashing in the shores off a remote island, appearing as if it is a physical survival story, but the truth is so much darker than that. Although these girls do have to find ways to survive physically, they also have things to heal from emotionally while learning to trust each other in this makeshift society they are forced into. And that is really why they have been brought together in this island experiment. Because it is an experiment, led by the mysterious Dr. Gretchen Klein (Rachel Griffiths). Most of the story takes place on the island, though there are flashbacks to show who these characters were in their regular lives that led them to this experience and there are post-island scenes where they are being interviewed about their experience. Since this show skews younger than The Handmaid's Tale, emphasis is put on youthful behaviors and relationships, so there is a level of escapism and even nostalgia to this show that lightens the tone, even though every character has a different trauma to work through. And yes, that includes boys, too: The second season opens the world wider to show how an island full of teenage boys fared when given the same circumstances as the girls. Just be warned: The show was canceled after Season 2, so characters don't get to fully work through their issues.
"There's something incredibly (and increasingly in each episode) watchable about this twisting, silly show that anchors its B-movie charms in truthful, heartfelt characters and performances." — Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
Best for: Fans of survival stories with a surreal twist
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Moss continues to prove she knows more than most about depicting trauma on television as she stars in, executive produces, and directs this adaptation of Lauren Beukes' 2013 novel The Shining Girls. As protagonist Kirby Mazrachi, Moss plays a woman who survived a horrific attack by a serial killer (played by Jamie Bell), only now her world shifts under her feet at unexpected and unexplained moments, resulting in changes on she notices. If that sounds like a metaphor for how such an event can upend one's life, it is, but in this case, it is also literal. Kirby never should have survived the attack, but because she did, she is now linked to the serial killer, who is jumping back and forth in time committing crimes. It takes her a while to understand what is happening, but once she does, she sets out to take her life back by stopping him.
"Shining Girls unfolds slowly, like Zodiac on Xanax, which could be a hypnotic vibe to some, or an enervating one to others."— David Cote, The A.V. Club