They Create Nightmare Worlds for TV. Now They’re Living in One.

Amid the pandemic, the producers of dystopian dramas like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Westworld” see their work in a different light.


By Dave Itzkoff

They tried to warn us.

In their television dramas, they sought to depict the most chillingly dystopian scenarios they could imagine — terrifying alternate realities in which life as we knew it had been devastated by revolutions, plagues, technology run amok or hordes of bloodthirsty zombies.

At the time, the writers of these series — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Westworld” and others — wanted to entertain and challenge audiences with dark reflections of society that they could tell themselves were avoidable or too outrageous to transpire.

But now, amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, the people who make these shows are looking at their work in a different light.

These creators and producers are in no mood to gloat or to chastise viewers for failing to heed their admonitions. But they have a clear understanding of why we remain drawn to dystopian entertainments and they wonder whether current events will have some lasting impact on their work.

And they admit to pangs of remorse for asking audiences to engage with the nightmares they invent.

“You do feel guilty about putting these anxieties in people’s minds,” said Bruce Miller, the creator and showrunner of Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“There’s no way not to feel like you somehow wished things into being,” he said. “But it shows you how television, and drama in general, has something to tell people about how the world works.”

Alison Schapker, the showrunner of Netflix’s dark science-fiction series “Altered Carbon,” said she had become acutely aware of how her work is being received “when television has become one of the fundamental outlets we have to pass time and process what’s happening in the day.”

She added that viewers’ amplified discomfort would invariably seep back into her writing. “What I want to say as a storyteller always comes from the life I’m living, and that life has been completely upended,” Schapker said.

On “The Handmaid’s Tale,” adapted from the Margaret Atwood novel, America has been ravaged by disease and environmental disaster, and remade as a totalitarian state where women are enslaved. “Altered Carbon,” based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel, imagines a future when immortality is made possible by technology — but only for those who can afford it. In HBO’s “Westworld,” adapted from Michael Crichton’s thriller, lifelike automatons are subjugated in a world of declining morals and brutal economic disparity.

While these dehumanizing scenarios have proliferated in popular culture, Jonathan Nolan, a co-creator and showrunner of “Westworld,” said they all derived from a shared human curiosity to imagine society under stress — while observing from a safe distance.

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