Must watch television

Did you see the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale this weekend? We devoured three of the ten-part series nearly a month  ago (best not ask too many questions 'bout the how) and have been haranguing the publicists of all major UK channels ever since. Here's why.

An adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic 1985 novel, it’s set in a nightmarish future America, renamed Gilead, that’s become a Christian fundamentalist tyranny. Women are banned from working, owning property, and even reading; fertile young women are forced into servitude to the military caste, where they must submit to ritualised rape. Known as handmaids, they’re capable of some pretty horrendous acts themselves.

Cheery? Hardly. Tragically relevant in today’s world, where there’s a pussy grabber in the White House with a deputy whose attitude to women’s bodies could charitably be described as Medieval? Definitely.

That said, there are other reasons to watch beyond wallowing in a shocking and grimly recognisable extrapolation from some very dark corners of the real world. Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss is amazing as Offred, our lead character, who isn’t quite as subjugated as she might initially seem. Veteran character actress Ann Dowd, Joseph Fiennes and Alexis Bledel – Rory Gilmore! – are also on top form, but this is Moss’s show: she makes the scenario feel chillingly real, despite elements which come across as particularly stylised on TV, like Attwood's colour-coded outfitting. Casting Moss is smart as well, as she brings with her the you-go-girl heritage of her turn as Don Draper’s most talented underling: it’s impossible not to think of Peggy as Moss moves through this world.

Making some sensible changes from the book to position Offred as both more active and more complex – this victim does her fair share of victimising in turn – the setting is wisely updated to today, but an inch further. References to Tinder and Uber mean we’re in no heightened dystopia, but a nightmare that feels like it’s happening here and now.

If this all sounds heavy, it’s because it is, cattle prods and all. But this is one of the shows of the year, and in a world where even prestige TV like Game of Thrones is happy to use misogyny and rape as background colour, it feels all the more important.

Episode 1 is available on 4od right now. You've got until Sunday at 9pm when the ten-part series continues on Channel 4 in real time.