Handmaid’s Tale Executive Producer on Making the Show While the U.S. Is ‘Racing Towards Gilead’

Warren Littlefield discusses the Hulu show’s future and Fargo’s upcoming return

During his 20 years as an NBC exec, including seven as NBC Entertainment president, Warren Littlefield presided over the network’s “Must See TV” heyday in the ’90s. Now, two decades later, Littlefield is once again overseeing some of TV’s most buzzed-about series as an executive producer on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and FX’s Fargo.

The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a dystopian future in which the U.S. government has been overthrown by a fundamentalist regime and many women are enslaved, returns for Season 3 today, with three new episodes streaming on Hulu and an additional episode available weekly. For the show, which won the Emmy for outstanding drama series in 2017, these are the first new episodes since the controversial Season 2 finale, during which—spoiler alert—Elisabeth Moss’ June sends her newborn baby away to freedom, but elects to stay behind in Gilead.

Littlefield, who is currently in production on a new Hulu series, the drama Reprisal, spoke with Adweek about how much longer Handmaid can go on, if Margaret Atwood’s upcoming  sequel will be incorporated into the series, how he would compete with streamers if he were still a broadcast exec and what’s in store for Fargo’s upcoming Season 4.

Adweek: What was your biggest challenge going into Season 3?
Warren Littlefield: We didn’t want to duplicate ourselves. Season 1 was about June’s survival; that was the thematic. Season 2 was largely informed by motherhood, protecting her unborn child and trying, in some way, to protect [her other daughter] Hannah. Season 3 takes us outside of June and really thrusts us into ‘how does she affect the lives of others’?

So this year is about the radicalization of June—”blessed be the fight”—and the burden of leadership. What does that look like? For us, it was finding a fresh thematic that brought us into new territory. Bradley Whitford brings us into a new commander’s household and a new dimension, because, is this a good guy? Is this a bad guy? And I think the answer is he’s both. That’s a new dimension in that power structure of Gilead that June is up against. So that gave us a lot of opportunities as we navigate through year three.

It always seems like the only thing harder than launching a successful TV show is trying to sustain one. What did you learn about that during your time at NBC and over the years that you’ve been able to apply here?
I think in this age of television, when you’re not doing procedural television, you need to embrace change. It feels like, if we’re going be in that rarefied air of appointment television, then we’ve got to play at that level. It means a high level of risk, and it means that you’re not going to always be right.

And also, even with viewers that criticized our end of Season 2, we had to love their passion. They weren’t ready for June to turn back towards Gilead, and, wow, they felt passionately about it. That only makes us feel like we made a number of very good decisions because they feel that strongly about it.

When The Handmaid’s Tale first launched, you and Margaret Atwood would say that while the show had some similarities to modern events, the story pulls from events throughout history. But just two years later, the current parallels seem undeniable, even more so in the last month. Do you feel that the show has leaned more into the present, given everything that has unfolded since it premiered?
I think the world is leaning to us, unfortunately. Our job is not to present the news. Our job is to create a dramatic narrative that’s compelling for our audiences. Unfortunately, and particularly right now, [with the new abortion laws in] Georgia and Alabama and Missouri, we are living in a world that is very, very quickly racing towards Gilead. We don’t want that to be the case, but we recognize it. I wish we were a little less relevant, but we seem to be a part of the discussion.

Our Handmaid’s wardrobe is a symbol throughout the world of demonstration and resistance. So that feels thrilling, and a burden. We can’t help in the thematic that Margaret chose, and that we’ve followed, and then gone certainly beyond the book. We seem to be on a parallel course with the events in the world: the rise of the alt-right, and the rise to take back a women’s right to control her body and have control over it. Again, we’re not doing the news. But we seem to be touching on it, and that’s part of the essence of who we are.

The Handmaid’s Tale filmed a Season 3 scene on location in Washington, D.C.Hulu

You shot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this season, with hundreds of handmaids. Any other day of the year, that could have been an actual D.C. protest.
It was powerful for us to shoot there. Over two mornings, I watched the sunrise from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In a show that has many, many powerful moments for our talent and our producers to interact with together, what happened with us in Washington was phenomenal. We’re on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you’re standing in the exact spot that Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. And we’re looking on the wall at the words of Lincoln, engraved into the granite of freedom of justice. And there we are, knowing that as we’re shooting, that in the Rose Garden—almost within our sight—they’re rolling back women’s rights and human rights. So it was an incredibly powerful experience to be there.

Margaret Atwood is writing a Handmaid sequel, due out in September. Is that something you would be interested in as a producer? And if so, do you see that story as something that could be folded into the current series, or would it need to stand on its own?
We’re navigating that now. MGM owns the show and we’re looking at all of those possibilities. It is this world, 15 years later. The last thing Margaret said is, “There’s another rewrite! Wait for the rewrite!” Who are we to disobey Margaret? All of that is to be determined.

As Season 3 comes out, it will bring up another round of questions about how long the show will run. At this point in the run, how much longer do you and showrunner Bruce Miller see it going for?
Honestly, we don’t know the answer yet. We just landed the [Season 3] plane and now we get to take a deep breath, look with a lot more depth at Margaret’s new book, start to chart where we go and maybe figure out what the endgame is. And all those are mysteries for us that we embrace, but we haven’t resolved that yet. I feel great about what we’re putting out there this year, and that’s in the “to be continued” column.

The biggest headache for broadcast execs these days is trying to compete with Netflix, Hulu and the other streaming services. If you were still a broadcaster, what do you think the best approach would be?
I don’t think you make big-tent television. You’re not doing something for everyone. You’re trying to satisfy a smaller group with a more direct, bull’s-eye hit. And that must be done without fear, without compromise. If there’s a pure, creative expression, then in a world where there’s infinite, amazing content choices, you have a chance at breaking through. But I think that you have to have a laser-like approach to [the question]: Are we just putting another one of these in the world? What is this? Why now? What does it say?

One piece of TV news that just broke: They’re looking to revive one of your old NBC shows, Punky Brewster, with Soleil Moon Fyre involved.
[Laughs loudly.] This is news to me. A smile comes to my face for Soleil and for Brandon Tartikoff [Littlefield’s former mentor at NBC, whom he succeeded as president of entertainment]. It was one of his children, creatively. His fingerprints were all over it. And so, that’s cool. That’s great. The spirit of Brandon lives on with that announcement.

“It feels like if we’re going be in that rarefied air of appointment television, that we’ve got to play at that level. It means a high level of risk, and it means that you’re not going to always be right.”

Are there other shows you oversaw at NBC that you would like to see come back in some form?
I’m more focused on the present. It really made me smile when I went to the first taping of Will & Grace when they came back. And I celebrate them. But I don’t spend that much time thinking about the past.

So then let’s look to the future, and Season 4 of Fargo, which you’re shooting later this year. Is your approach that whenever creator Noah Hawley is ready to make another season, so are you?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s this wonderful little gem that every couple of years, we revisit. God bless FX. They completely embrace that notion that when it happens; it’s an event for that network. They celebrate it. They know how to get the audience’s attention, and they give us a great deal of latitude in when and what. Noah wakes up one morning and goes, “I’ve been thinking,” and that’s usually a pretty delicious thought.

So I don’t think it’s a surprise: It’s 1950 Kansas City. At the center is the tension between two crime families: one African-American family, led by Chris Rock, and an Italian-American crime family. And the truce they try and broker. But of course, it’s Fargo, so the truce doesn’t hold.

I was at the Disney upfront last month, when they showed that new interview with Chris about it. With Peak TV, you’re overwhelmed with so much current TV that you tend to forget about the shows that are coming up, and it was a nice reminder that we have more Fargo to look forward to.
I felt the same thing. I saw that clip and was like, “Yes, there’s Fargo! … Oh yeah, I’ve got to produce it!”

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)