The smash hit new television series, The Handmaid's Tale, opens with an intense and suspenseful chase scene, which hooks you more or less instantly, and which is comfortably the least suspenseful thing that happens in the show's first three episodes.

As a viewer, you are so regularly left, through those opening episodes, asking, "What?", "Why?" and "Are you bloody serious?" and so regularly receiving answers that are so satisfyingly appalling - that throw you so off-kilter - that it is physically impractical to stop watching.

Basically, the show revolves around the excellent actor and practising Scientologist Elisabeth Moss, who plays a slave-type character living in an America which a coup has turned into a repressive, hateful theocracy of almost unimaginable grimness. But it's way worse than unimaginable.

In The New York Times this year, Margaret Atwood, who wrote the novel that is the series' source material, said she did not include any events in the book that had not already occurred "in what James Joyce called the 'nightmare' of history".


Part of the reason the show is so watchable is that its subject matter is so repellent: call it The Trump Paradox if you want, and you will want, because at times you can think of nothing else but that dishonest embodiment of division and spite, and where he's taking his country and possibly the rest of us too.

Here you are, as a viewer, sandwiched between a future of great uncertainty and the horrors of recent history - wars and oppressions, the Holocaust, Cold War Eastern Europe, Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan and so many others that you have convinced yourself could never happen here - and you are watching something between a re-enactment of what has been and an imagining of what could be.

A few nights before starting to watch The Handmaid's Tale I had started watching the Netflix documentary, Get Me Roger Stone, about a nefarious political operative who played an apparently quite large part in the Trump campaign and election, who has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back and who says things like, "For the first time ever, I understood the value of misinformation" and "It's better to be infamous than never to be famous at all."

I had to turn it off after half an hour, unable to deal emotionally with the combination of his influence and the darkness at the centre of his world view and what that might portend for the world. Why, then, did I not similarly turn away from The Handmaid's Tale, which is nominally fiction, but is nevertheless fiction based on verifiable fact?

"I knew that established orders could vanish overnight," Atwood wrote in her New York Times piece. "Change could also be as fast as lightning. 'It can't happen here' could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances."

That's an important thing to remind ourselves of in uncertain times. And that's where good drama becomes great drama: it knows the power of story to keep us alert, even when we want to turn away.

Now screening on Lightbox.