People think I’m weird when I tell them that I find The Handmaid’s Tale to be comfort viewing. Admittedly, I get it. Since its premiere in 2017, the uber-dark series has inflicted countless horrors upon its characters, both physical and mental, and some sequences have represented the platonic ideal of “hard to watch.”
But the reason Hulu’s Emmy-winning drama has such a hold on me is that while I know full well that the terrible things that happen are all rooted in reality, that the world it depicts isn’t impossible to imagine happening today, there’s the part of my brain that processes every awful moment from this perspective: “Well, things are bad right now, but at least they’re not that bad.”
That’s the unique appeal of the alternate universe, a storytelling trope that’s become increasingly prevalent on TV. It’s hardly a new idea—the question of “what if?” has always been a core baseline for so much in fantasy and science fiction. But over the past few years, more series aim deliberately to target non-genre audiences with premises that push beyond the world we know.
The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps more officially categorized as “dystopian,” but another way to consider it is a show set on an alternate Earth, one where the reason things have gotten so bad is that several years ago the birth rate plummeted, stoking societal fears about extinction into creating this mess.
The key to an alternate universe is the reason it exists—the aforementioned “what if?” coupled with the question of “why?”—otherwise known as the divergence point. These can be relatively general, or extremely specific: Apple TV+’s For All Mankind is a series rooted in asking “what if the Soviet Union had beaten America to the moon in 1969?” Onscreen, the reason why the Russians won that particular battle has yet to be addressed, but the producers have an exact answer as to what made the difference in that show’s alternate history (revealed during a press conference I was at in February 2019, but I’d hate to spoil it).
For All Mankind is a show with an ultimately optimistic outlook, as the first season’s depiction of a revitalized space program led to things yet to happen in “our” reality in the 1960s: female astronauts and astronauts of color on the moon, the creation of a habitable moonbase, and the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment.
But it is perhaps the lone example of an alternate universe show that aims to inspire us. The rest either glory in the grey areas, or find divergence points which indicate a world which would be far, far worse than what we might expect.
The recent HBO limited series Watchmen features two different divergence points in the creation of its alternate universe: First, an angry police officer in 1938, after being assaulted by white members of the force, puts on a mask to become the first vigilante, Hooded Justice. The second (much more important in the graphic novel, but still very relevant to the series) is an accident at Gila Flats in 1959, when a man’s desire to retrieve his wristwatch leads to him being transformed into the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan.
The creation of superheroes—those with powers, and those without—warps 20th and 21st-century history in so many ways, replacing existing tragedies with others, offering up some improvements (like electric cars) and some setbacks (significantly hindered technology).
While Watchmen doesn’t set up its alternate universe as good or bad (it just is) it’s a rare exception, as many of these recent narratives lean into the realm of cautionary tale.
The Man in the High Castle, which ended last fall after four seasons on Amazon, was all about perhaps one of this genre’s biggest questions: What if the Nazis won World War II? Grounded in period details as well as the creation of many varied 1960s universes, High Castle made a point of preaching the idea of resistance, albeit from a fairly confused point-of-view.
Meanwhile, premiering soon is HBO’s The Plot Against America, the David Simon-produced limited series set in the late 1930s. As the Nazi regime rises in Germany, a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey witnesses the horrible triumph of an unexpected Presidential candidate: celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh, noted anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.
The series, based on the novel by Philip Roth, is less about Lindbergh’s campaign and more about the life of the Levins, struggling in an America where the political ascension of Lindbergh has fostered a whole new wave of anti-Jewish sentiment. It’s a period coming-of-age story, but also very much a story meant to make us consider “what if”—and take comfort in the fact that, well, in this case it didn’t.
Happier alternate universes than the one we dwell in are becoming more and more difficult to watch. (Remember watching The West Wing during the Bush administration? Not to mention rewatching that show during the Trump administration?) But really, the general fact that more and more of today’s television borrows genre tropes to create a sense of escapism is less and less surprising. Because, real talk: Perhaps the reason why we’re asking “what if?” so often these days is that anywhere but here sounds pretty good.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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