TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Two TV drama series that generated notable amounts of viewers and acclaim for their initial seasons are about to return for Season 2 is HBO's Westworld, last seen in 2016. That resumes Sunday. The other is "The Handmaid's Tale," which won the Emmy as last year's Outstanding Drama Series. That returns on Hulu next Wednesday. Our TV critic David Bianculli has seen several episodes from each and has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It's pure coincidence that HBO's "Westworld" and Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" are returning to TV within a week of one another. But it almost seems by design because these two shows, set in dystopian near futures where things have gone terribly wrong, arguably have so much in common. Both shows have very strong women as their central characters, women who were exploited and controlled by others and treated horribly. But in both series, these women not only survive and persist, but they end up joining or leading rebellions against their oppressors.
Both "Westworld" and "The Handmaid's Tale," especially as they begin their second seasons, use the same inventive approaches to their narratives. They use flashbacks extensively to explore characters and reveal plot twists. They introduce, highlight and follow more characters than before, and in both shows, bring back characters you had every right to believe you'd never see again. Both shows expand their established environments considerably, letting us see more of the imaginary worlds they've created. And both shows, I suspect, will finish the year as entries on my annual top-10 list.
"Westworld" is based on, and an improvement upon, the 1973 movie by Michael Crichton, who later returned to the theme-park-run-amok idea even more successfully in "Jurassic Park." The husband and wife producing team of Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan have worked with executive producer J.J. Abrams to create one of TV's best, most intricate puzzles. What Abrams did with ABC's "Lost" - playing with timelines and realities and mysteries - he doubles down on in "Westworld."
Like Cylons in the revived "Battlestar Galactica," the characters in HBO's "Westworld" don't always know what they are, much less who. But they spend a lot of time wondering, and have, from the start. The first season of "Westworld" began with Delores, one of the humanoid robots, conversing with Bernard, one of her designers and programmers. Dolores is played by Evan Rachel Wood, and Bernard by Jeffrey Wright.
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JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) What is it that you want?
EVAN RACHEL WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) I don't know. But this world, I think there may be something wrong with this world, something hiding underneath. Either that or there's something wrong with me. I may be losing my mind.
BIANCULLI: Season 2 of "Westworld" begins with another conversation between Dolores and Bernard. This time, he's describing a dream of his to her. And so much has happened in the meantime to them and to their understanding of themselves, but they're still asking all the right questions.
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WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) What's it mean?
WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) Dreams don't mean anything, Dolores. They're just noise. They're not real.
WOOD: (As Dolores Abernathy) What is real?
WRIGHT: (As Bernard Lowe) That which is irreplaceable.
BIANCULLI: "Westworld" is heavily populated with characters and actors who could each claim the starring role. The quests by these characters, played by Wood and Wright and by Thandie Newton, Ed Harris and others, are that central. One of last year's key characters played by Anthony Hopkins may never show up again. But on a show like "Westworld," it's best to never say never.
"The Handmaid's Tale" is another show that expands both its setting and its storylines this season. At the end of last year's series, the handmaiden character played by Elisabeth Moss was being taken forcibly from the home where she had been imprisoned all season, forced to have sex with a man whose wife was infertile in hopes of giving them a baby. At the time of her abduction at the end of the season, the handmaid didn't know whether things for her would get better or worse.
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ELISABETH MOSS: (As June Osborne) Whether this is my end or a new beginning, I have no way of knowing. I've given myself over into the hands of strangers. I have no choice. It can't be helped. And so I step up into the darkness within or else the light.
BIANCULLI: Moss, as the increasingly defiant and determined June, gets to learn more about the world around her in Season 2, the world that has developed since conservatives who stripped women of their rights took over the government by force. We, as viewers, learn about it as well while also learning about the pasts and the surprising fates of several supporting characters. Some TV series are exceptionally good at revealing character and subplot through flashbacks, not only "Twin Peaks" and "Lost" and the new "Legion" but Tom Fontana's classic HBO prison drama "Oz."
"The Handmaid's Tale" and "Westworld" are two more terrific examples of quality drama series on TV that take great advantage in going one step forward, two steps back. In Season 2, whichever way they go, it's the right direction. And at this point in TV history, these stories about women standing up against their oppressors are not going away.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with James Comey and with Brian Tyree Henry, who costars in the FX series "Atlanta" as Alfred Miles aka Paper Boi, check out our podcast where you'll find lots of our interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.