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Interview: TV Legend Warren Littlefield on an Evolving Career and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, which is currently airing its fourth season, offers a frightening portrait of what society could look like if the wrong people amass too much power and set civilization back a few hundred years. It represents an eerie parallel of the world today, one never intended to so closely mirror real-life events but which has felt more and more relevant with each new season.

One of the main reasons that the show has come into existence is thanks to the efforts of Warren Littlefield, who serves as executive producer. Littlefield’s TV resume is jaw-droppingly impressive, and much of that comes from his lengthy tenure as president of NBC Entertainment. During his time at the network, he oversaw the development of countless series including Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Seinfeld, The Golden Girls, Friends, ER, and The West Wing, transforming the TV landscape when Must See TV was at height of its popularity.

Now, Littlefield is again blazing ahead in a new cutting-edge format, supervising a show on one of the most popular streaming services. It was an honor to be able to speak with Littlefield and to hear nostalgic anecdotes about the many phases of his years spent in the industry along with sage wisdom about keeping up with modern times and evolving as necessary.

Q: When did you first read this book, and did you know at that point that this would make a great show?

A: I did not read Margaret Atwood’s book. I certainly was aware of it, but I hadn’t read it until the project was in development with Hulu and Bruce Miller had written the first two hours. I sat down and read the first two hours, and felt they were absolutely incredible. Then I sat down and read Margaret’s book. I was pretty blown away, and then I went back and reread Bruce’s two scripts and then said, what do I have to do to become a part of this? There’s such a powerful and important journey here. I then colluded with Lizzie Moss to say, I’ve got things on my plate, you’ve got things on your plate, I just don’t think we should let this get away. I’ll do it if you do it. And she said, I think we have to. No regrets.

Q: So what was it about it that just spoke to you?

A: I think Margaret’s patchwork quilt of history that formed a society that was repressive and dystopian, and the rising up of the character of June against that dystopia. A battle for women, a battle for people whose voices were being taken away and their freedom was being taken away. That felt like such an elevated version of things that were creeping into our world. I thought, well, this feels really human, even though it’s a world that we’re creating. This world doesn’t exist, but it felt like it wasn’t far away. That was haunting to me. That was more monstrous to me than any monsters I could conjure. I felt the potential and the power of that story, and then we began the journey of building it. The next thing we knew, we were in a world where Gilead was in the White House and in the Justice Department, and had invaded our real world. There’s no question that the real world shined a light on what we were doing. I think today we’re reminded that, just because Gilead is no longer in the White House or the Justice Department, that journey is not over. That fight is not over. Each and every day we’re reminded of just how difficult that is. I think that’s true for June’s journey as well. In this season, we really examine just how tough she is, and look at the cost both physically and emotionally for what she has to go through for a taste of freedom. 

Q: You mentioned creator Bruce Miller and Elisabeth Moss. What do they both bring to this project?

A: Brilliance. Bruce, the creator and executive producer, Lizzie the star and executive producer. Bruce gives us the vision with his writers of what the theme for the year will be, and then our challenge is to execute that vision. Lizzie, because the show has always been the point of view of June, Lizzie is the receptacle that presents that to the world. This year, she added another dimension to her resume on The Handmaid’s Tale by becoming a director. Not only did she direct the third hour, but also hours eight and nine. Turns out she knows what she’s doing. Not surprising that she was unbelievably prepared, in the trenches, out finding locations, rejecting them, seizing upon somewhere that she could bring the intention of a scene to life. Really remarkably talented as a director, adding that to her arsenal as an actor. It’s a pretty wonderful triangle. We call ourselves a triangle of trust. There’s a lot of respect we have for the individual skills that we all bring to this and also what we’re able to do.

Q: We’ve talked about the content, we’ve talked about the talent, now I’m curious about the format. You spent many years at NBC, and a lot of that was creating all these amazing shows that were marketed as must-see TV and appointment television. Now, you have a show that’s available to stream. While this is not one of the shows that releases the entire season at once for people to binge, you do have three episodes premiering at once, and then one a week. Did you ever expect that you’d be working in this completely different space?

A: No! I think one of the things I learned when I was at NBC, it seems like a few lifetimes ago, is embrace change, because change is coming. The world of technology and delivery. Back then, when I started working at the network, the average household had half a dozen channel choices. When I left NBC, the average household was at at least fifty and rapidly on its way to a hundred channel choices. We watched the world change dramatically back then. The whole notion of a schedule, here’s when we put it on, here’s when you can watch it, it all blew up. Just make great content, and here’s a platform where you can find it. We were aware that the world was changing, and networks were no longer king when I was still there. That world was all changing. Who wins in all this world of change? The viewers. The viewers have more choice for content than ever before, and the content continues to be truly amazing. Worldwide content. Unbelievable production value. I think that’s why, at dinner tables, people are not talking about feature films as much as they talk about television.

Q: Do you think that there are shows that you were able to bring to life that lasted for a long time that wouldn’t work now if people weren’t scheduling a time to watch something, or are there any you remember that might now be perfect for this new age?

A: Well, so many of the shows that I was a part of in my network years, they’re all being remade! That’s great, but I think also what’s fun is to go to a place where the audience hasn’t been before. And this was true when I was at the network. The things that scared us the most had the biggest upside. When you cut against the grain, you’re providing an alternative to what the audience can find. When there’s something truly original, and you strike a chord, and I think we have with The Handmaid’s Tale, it becomes bigger, it has impact. So that’s what excites me. I’m proud of my past, I’m glad that those shows have such high regard, and that so many versions are getting redone. That’s great. I think I’m looking for reasons to find relevancy now.

Q: This is meant to be a difficult question: is there one show, aside from The Handmaid’s Tale, that you feel will always hold a particularly special place in your heart?

A: Seinfeld. I think, decades later, like many other people, I can go to an episode, it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen it, I’m still laughing out loud. While Cheers was the show that I kind of grew up on as a network executive, I got to work on the pilot and then stay with the series, and also Hill Street Blues, those were my learning trees for network television, but with Seinfeld, previously comedy had been two-act structure. Four scenes in act one, three scenes in act two, that’s a seven-scene structure. That was it. That’s how comedies were made. Larry David, who avoided story in the beginning, then became addicted to it, all of a sudden started going from seven to ten to twelve to fifteen to twenty to twenty-five scenes even in a given episode because of the complexity of the stories he was telling, and how all those stories at some point came together, delightfully and wonderfully, he broke the mold. It was a reflection, I think of the world that we were living in, that had MTV pace. His disregard for the past in finding the future was brilliant. We were simply start enough to get out of the way and let him do it.

The Handmaid’s Tale is currently premiering new episodes each Wednesday on Hulu, with the first three seasons available to stream anytime.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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