Is the future bright or bleak? MTM’s musings on the rise of speculative drama

Blessed be the fruit. Or for those not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, hello and welcome to this week’s MTM mailer where we reflect on the role of speculative drama, and dystopian storytelling in particular, in today’s TV landscape.

The future is hot right now

It’s clear we’ve got a bit of a thing for speculative drama at the moment – and by speculative, we mean stories that look forward to an imagined future, whether it’s a positive or (more commonly) a troubling one.

In terms of broadcasters, Channel 4 seems to be leading the way here in the UK, delivering a double whammy with a third series of Humans (sentient ‘synth’ robots causing Armageddon-style disruption) as well as the second series of Hulu’s critically acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter beat tough competition at both the Emmy and Golden Globe Awards last year, and after helping to push membership in the US over the 20m mark, Hulu has already announced series 3. On Sky Atlantic, you can also tune into series 2 of HBO’s mind-bending Westworld, which explores similar questions to C4’s Humans: what does it mean to be human, and how might this morph with AI advancements?

It’s a global phenomenon

But it’s not just UK and US audiences who are relishing this contemplation of humanity’s future; it seems to be a desire globally felt.

According to Netflix, its Brazilian take on dystopian drama, 3%, was the second most binged show of 2017, strongly resonating with audiences across the world. With a premise not too far from The Hunger Games, it sees the children of São Paulo’s favelas compete to live on the Offshore – a comparative utopia. The Verge argues its success lies not only in its nuanced characters and a focus on their development, but “unlike the relentless misery of a show like The Handmaid’s Tale…there’s always hope or relief to be found”.

Last month, Denmark tapped into health and environmental apocalyptic themes with The Rain (also a Netflix production). More akin to The Walking Dead and Scandi-noir, it follows teens’ attempted survival from a virus spread through rain. Though it could be said we’ve seen this type of show before, Digital Spy praises Netflix for giving a subtitled Danish drama the same marketing treatment as its English equivalent, instead of being “squirreled away” on a niche service such as Walter Presents or a niche channel such as BBC Four, as we’re more often used to.

Three things driving this demand

MTM’s experience in content research tells us that any drama needs three things: credible characters, careful pacing and conflict. But aside from these traits, what’s making audiences connect so strongly to these dystopian dramas now?

  1. Working on our future

One argument is that these imagined futures now seem within reaching distance, and are therefore all the more powerful. Ever-evolving technology and our increasing reliance on it are part of the genius of Black Mirror; we already see small pieces of evidence of these nightmare worlds in our everyday lives (such as digital surveillance or Facebook Live broadcasting horrific events). Likewise, it doesn’t feel hard to imagine a life where water and petrol are scarce, as in Mad Max Fury Road. Author Alexander Weinstein sees these types of stories “as a way to warn [us] about a possible future” – and importantly, to force us to consider what we can do to change the future.

  1. Working through our present

The flipside is that dystopian stories don’t actually make us look to our future, but at our present. Since Trump’s inauguration, for example, Orwell’s 1984 has seen a 9,500% sales increase. Esquire notes that The Handmaid’s Tale is seen by many as a commentary on Trump’s threat to reproductive rights, and it could also be argued, the #MeToo campaign. Chris Robichaud, a Harvard ethicist who teaches a course on utopia and dystopia in fiction, argues they give audiences an opportunity to emotionally respond to and experiment with challenging socio-political discourse in a ‘safe space’.

  1. Working on ourselves

And from the perspective of a viewer, a significant appeal of these shows is their ability to make us look inwards; who are we, what are our values and who would we become in these testing circumstances? We invest in the characters’ journeys but we’re also personally pulled in to the story: what would our own journey look like?

As well as the shows mentioned above, the upcoming TV adaptation of Snowpiercer in the States and the sustained success of dystopian literature (especially among young adults) suggest that dystopian stories are now a defining part of our media landscape. The question is, will they help shape or be shaped by our future?

~

If you’d like to discuss more about content trends and what could be next, or are interested in testing content with audiences, then get in touch with us!

~

p.s. Under his eye (you never know where an Eye could be, better be safe than sorry!)

About Georgie Coad

Georgie Coad is a Research Manager at MTM working in the qualitative team. Growing up during phenomenal technological change, with the explosion of social media and the beginnings of OTT, Georgie is excited to research ways that media will continue to evolve and change the way we live.