The far extremes of TV entertainment make for an oddly unified viewing experience

By Darren Franich
July 11, 2018 at 06:29 PM EDT
George Kraychyk/Hulu; Bravo

In our household this spring-summer, Wednesday was the big TV night. My wife and I would start texting, excited, around noon: “HANDMAIDS & HOUSEWIVES.”

The latest merry-goofball episode of The Real Housewives of New York City, the latest terror-assault episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, both dropping the same day, weekend-adjacent enough to justify a couple glasses/bottles of Sauv.

The far extremes of television entertainment, these two. The Manhattan affiliate of Bravo’s docu-soap franchise is real-ish farce, starring personalities who once were human, showdowning Hamptonite social etiquette over winebrunch. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dark drama, important enough to win Hulu some Emmy Awards, requiring star Elizabeth Moss to soulshriek the sins of misogyny through her eyeballs.

You could say the entertainment value came from the dissonance — like the lost days of Must See TV, when the sitcom antics of Seinfeld and, like, Caroline in the City dead-ended into the sliver-of-human-hope drama ER. But there has been something extra-special, horrifically necessary, about “Handmaids & Housewives” in 2018. The double bill ends Wednesday night with the Handmaid’s season 2 finale. (RHONY runs on, inevitably, toward a long-promised climactic boat trip.) So this weeks marks the last moment this year to appreciate the oddly unified viewing experience of these two most disparate TV series.

RHONY in season 10 (!) has an ensemble of basically all single ladies, age-ranging 40-to-60something. In the broadest terms, they navigate a life of glamorous tribulation: kids, assistants who could be kids, parties, personal brands, the promise of mutually assured tabloid destruction.

It is a peculiarly modern form of entertainment, aspirational and parodic. It is Trumpian TV by a couple definitions: Housewives chronicles women who embarrassed upward into fame, and also some of these Bravolebrities definitely partied with the president during rich Manhattan’s never-ending ’80s. Still, you worry about making an easy moral judgment. Unmarried hilarious women drink like frat boys. And one of them is a kamillionaire entrepreneur on a new activist kick. And one of them just divorced a man (the mythic, proverbial Tom) who lurks through the Upper East Side the way Sauron lingers in Mordor. It’s complicated.

Conversely: The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s living nightmare of an America that treats women as terribly as the Supreme Court soon might.

Season 2 of Hulu’s series pushed in many directions — some discouraging, as my fellow critic Kristen Baldwin recounts in her (spoiler-heavy) review. In dystopian Gilead, womanhood itself has been splintered into the most old-fashioned archetypes. Green-dressed wives make the home. Aproned Marthas work the house. Crimson-robed Handmaids are assaulted toward childbirth. Some shows chase topicality, but topicality furiously chases Handmaid’s: dictator-loving American politicians squabbling with Canada, trauma narratives in the age of #MeToo.

The “Handmaids & Housewives” relationship is a wild two-hour block. You could say that RHONY is the nightmare America that someone like Serena Joy would deplore: Turn on the TV, see what’s happened to our values in godless times.

Tricky to call Housewives the anti-Gilead, though. Handmaid’s Tale has merged a couple different ideas of a dark future into its dystopia: anti-female, homophobic, Christian in the least Christlike (but nevertheless popular) version of Christianity. Most of the Gilead leaders are white dudes, though the show shakily approaches racial topics — you’re left, sometimes, with the weird argument that the Commanders are woke enough to objectify all women. But season 2 toe-dipped toward a suggestion of class in this new America, semi-regular people living in cruddy apartments, and you started to appreciate the aristocratic state of the Commanders’ families. The wives led glossy house-party assemblies, honoring new births, staging one gala or another.

It’s a life that, well, isn’t far removed from Housewives’ Housewives, an existence dominated by the hard work of socializing. We’re halfway to someone asking, sincerely, “What is a week-end?” It’s a complicated feeling, watching RHONY’s characters these days. The Housewives brand has developed a kind of droll good humor, peace treaties prologuing drunken dramatics. But then local icon Bethenny Frankel has gone full-bore into disaster relief, taking fellow cast member Dorinda Medley to Puerto Rico for a look at the still-struggling island. You feel — subtly, if you believe these shows can be subtle — that these people are pivoting, reconsidering their lives. Dorinda and eternal Countess Luann are drinking less — the latter only after rock-bottoming into tabloid shame, sure, but redemption can be a media narrative and a sincere aspiration.

The week that Bethenny took Dorinda to Puerto Rico, Handmaid’s aired one of its most despairing episodes. June (Elizabeth Moss) was bleeding — an apparent miscarriage, which given recent events augured doom. In the radioactive colonies, Emily (Alexis Bledel), was losing her teeth. It was one of the episodes that got people talking about this season as luscious depression porn. I get the argument, but disagree. In the gulag, Emily watched two women get married, one of them halfway to death. A stunning moment, sentimental and primal as silent cinema.

There’s a quality of endurance powering Handmaid’s Tale. It’s cathartic in the most cleansing sense. The show can be very darkly funny, but it’s a fiery purge of terror. Real Housewives of New York is escapist, but there’s a catharsis here too, a portrait of women of a certain age with license to do something like whatever the hell they want. It’s a fantasy that happens to be sort of real — a common description, more pessimistically, of Handmaid’s Tale.

In the most moving scene of Handmaid’s this season, June revealed her true name to the other Handmaids, and they all followed suit. The same week on RHONY, the gang gathered for the annual Berzerkshires trip, yearly sight of yuletide follies. They were dressed as ’20s socialites in a murder plotline, with fake names, actors playing murder victims, a bit of flirting, mystery solved by dinnertime. The sacred and the profane: women free enough to boozily playact other identities, imprisoned women brave enough to hold onto their own identity. In 2018 we’re right there, between the Handmaids and the Housewives.