I don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale.
I haven’t seen a single second of the show, actually.
I meant to watch it, back when I heard it was being made. I had every intention of adding it to the already too-long list of TV shows I devour – but then the election happened, and even though some of the shock of it had worn off by the time the show premiered six months later, a show about a totalitarian regime where women are literal property of the state just seemed…too real. It hit way too close to home, especially with Pence a heartbeat away from the Presidency.
So I put it off, mentally assigning it to the backburner of shows I would get to eventually, waiting for the day when I was in a better headspace to consume something so dark, so disturbing, and so horrifyingly plausible.
But that day never came – and with Roe vs. Wade hurtling toward a seemingly inevitable demise, I doubt I ever will. This is not a commentary on the show’s quality – I’m sure it’s exceedingly well-made and splendidly acted, worthy of this “Golden Era” of TV in which we are still living – or a hipsterish, contrarian backlash against what is popular.
I merely came to the conclusion that continually subjecting myself to women’s trauma, fictional or otherwise, as entertainment is not worth it for me, no matter the supposed deeper meaning behind it. Rape, domestic abuse, and graphic violence toward marginalized groups are not prerequisites for powerful or compelling storytelling, and I am tired of Prestige Television™ pretending otherwise.
“But you’re being a total hypocrite,” I can hear you saying. “I follow you on Twitter. I know you watch Westworld, Supernatural, and Stranger Things. And don’t even get me started on Game of Thrones!”
And you’re right, I do. My TV habits are not all light and fluffy, and I have endured countless instances of fictional women being fridged in order to further the character development of men – though I have nearly given up on shows before because of lazy, gratuitous rape plots (yes, Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you). But I have noticed that, in the last two years, I have made conscious efforts to consume more television that contains generally good people just trying to do their best – or at least kinda crappy people who are making an effort to be better.
Allowing oneself to watch and enjoy these sorts of shows isn’t just a method of media self-care; it’s an act of resistance.
I feel like I’ll have my Online Millennial™ card taken away for saying this, but: I never really got into The Office – neither the UK nor the US version, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m mostly referencing the latter. For a long time, I assumed it was the reliance on awkwardness for its humor, as I have acute secondhand embarrassment. While I’m sure that absolutely contributed, I also think it has to do with the fact that, at least in the bits and pieces I’ve seen, a lot of the characters act like major jerks. (This is also why I could never truly latch onto It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where everyone is the Absolute Worst, and why I find Friends and How I Met Your Mother nearly unwatchable now, despite being a huge fan of both in my late teens/early twenties.)
But The Office’s companion program is easily one of my favorite TV shows of all time. Parks and Recreation is, at its core, about a group of flawed but lovable weirdos trying their best to do good. They screw up, they argue – check out season 3, episode 13 “The Fight” for one of the most realistic depictions of a drunken argument between two adult female friends I’ve ever seen – but they care. They care about each other, they care about their town, and they care about the people who live there. Even the perpetually side-eyeing April Ludgate, played by the brilliant Aubrey Plaza, has a generous heart under her layers of cynicism and deadpan delivery. And in a world where the temptation to slip into apathy and nihilism is ever-present, there’s something unexpectedly revolutionary about watching those goofy civil servants in middle America.
That same sensibility also permeates The Good Place, which is in my opinion one of the best new TV shows in this decade – and it’s unsurprising, given that it’s the brainchild of Michael Schur, who co-created Parks and Rec with Greg Daniels. Through food puns, philosophy lessons, and contemplations on the nature of the afterlife, The Good Place takes us on a journey with some less-than-stellar people as they learn what it means to be human and what we owe to each other. The characters in The Good Place are certainly less pure and more flawed than our Pawnee friends; indeed, their flaws are why they are where they are. They all kinda suck in their own way, especially their past selves – Eleanor’s past self in particular would fit right in with the It’s Always Sunny crew – but they are no less lovable, or at the very least relatable. And throughout the course of the show, they learn and grow and become better. Which, really, is all we as viewers can do as human beings.
“But there’s so much going on in the world! How can you ignore all the injustice and just watch TV that makes you feel all good and warm and fuzzy inside?”
Yes, it is a privilege in and of itself to be able to put my phone down, close my laptop, and indulge in a television show for a few hours. I fully recognize this. But even the most engaged and energized activists can burn out, and we all owe it to ourselves to find joy where we can.
So instead of torturing myself with depictions of Gilead, the totalitarian regime in The Handmaid’s Tale that feels all too possible now, rather than potentially trigger myself with every gratuitous rape scene, I choose to consume media that makes me feel inspired again.
I refuse to let the fascists running this country win by forcing me into a neverending cycle of despair.
I don’t watch feel-good TV as a way to hide from the world or forget about its problems. I use it to remind myself that there is still goodness to be found in it, that we can be better than who we are now. It’s what Leslie Knope would do, I think. She’d watch a show she loves, she’d eat some waffles, and then she’d fight like hell.
Because there is power in hope.
There’s a moment near the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, during the Battle of Hogwarts, where Harry is unable to conjure a Patronus to drive away dementors. His will to fight is gone; he’s already lost so many people close to him, including Fred Weasley, Remus Lupin, and Nymphadora Tonks. His despair is so great that he almost welcomes the oncoming oblivion, because at least then he wouldn’t have to feel anything anymore…and then Luna Lovegood, bless her precious soul, arrives, flanked by Seamus Finnigan and Ernie Macmillan. Their patronuses galvanize our trio, giving them the spark of hope they’d so nearly lost. “We’re all still here,” Luna says. “We’re still fighting.”
Sometimes, it feels like it would just be easier to give up and let the despair win, and it is in these moments that we need our Patronus Fuel. It’s different for everyone. As it turns out, feel-good TV is a major source of mine.