“The Handmaid’s Tale” is critical to the success of Hulu’s Live TV service

People tend to think in terms of what they want but don’t have, as opposed to what they have and don’t need. This is poignantly clear in the world of video streaming services. Outright cutting the cord hasn’t trended as quickly as pundits predicted; instead, Netflix, Hulu, HBONow, Amazon Prime and the rest seem to be something that many buyers view as supplementary. But which one(s) should get their hard earned cash?

That comes down to the content — who has the stuff everyone says they “just have to watch”?

For Hulu, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the streaming service’s big moment. And instead of treating this like a race, Hulu is treating the competitive landscape like a chess board.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on a novel written by Margaret Atwood written in 1985, which has spent the last six weeks on the NYT Best Seller’s list. It’s the story of a very near-future dystopia in which the religious right runs a military state after infertility rates dropped to a terrifying low. Women who are fertile, like main character Offred/June, are forced to bear children (through rape) for the elite and their wives.

Hulu’s original programming up to this point hasn’t been bad, per se — shows like “Difficult People” and “Casual” have caught the attention of critics, and “The Mindy Project” is a crowd-pleaser that left Fox for Hulu recently. But nothing in Hulu’s original programming portfolio rivals series like Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Orange Is The New Black” or HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” gives these shows a real run for their money, and finally makes a Hulu subscription an actual must-have, instead of a convenience.

For a long time, Hulu has been the streaming service that lets you catch up on recent television — you can watch last night’s episode of “Scandal” or “South Park” without having a proper cable subscription, or more importantly, without having to watch 20 minutes of live TV commercials.

Netflix, on the other hand, has focused on offering full series that are no longer on television (like all ten seasons of “Friends”) and worthwhile films, all complimented by high-quality original programming like “House of Cards” and “Making a Murderer.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is the first Hulu original program that would entice me to purchase a Hulu subscription, if I didn’t already have one. And if you love TV, you should consider it, too.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJTonrzXTJs&w=640&h=360]

Part of the popularity of the show comes from the uncanny parallels to today’s present-day political situation. Vulture aptly describes the potential similarities between present-day reality and the dystopia depicted in the series:

Offred says that she is awake to the world now, that she was asleep before. “That’s how we let it happen,” she thinks. “Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” The change was incremental at first: Their rights were suspended in the interest of national security, in the name of fighting terrorism. They were asked to make sacrifices, perhaps, to give up just a little of their rights and freedoms for the greater good. Once you’ve made one compromise, what’s another? What’s one step more?

This is how they take everything from you: one thing at a time.

The terror that we may be taking those initial steps, walking in the same direction as those characters did in their past lives in a free United States of America, makes the show hypnotizing. Its themes are so frightfully relevant that protestors in Texas wore Handmaid’s Tale red robes and bonnets in their opposition of a new anti-abortion bill.

The show’s relevance to present day may be coincidental — maybe Hulu simply got lucky — but the company’s launch of Hulu with Live TV, a $39.99 live TV subscription, is anything but coincidence.

The first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” went live on Hulu on April 26. Following the original three-episode launch, to whet your appetite, Hulu is releasing episodes of the show on Wednesday each week. Surprise! On May 3, the day that the fourth episode went live on Hulu, the company also launched Hulu with Live TV. (Fun fact: it only took one week from the premiere for Hulu to approve a second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)

Hulu seems to understand that it won’t often win against Netflix. But it can argue for its spot on your TV right next to Netflix, with an original show that you absolutely must see (like “OITNB” and “House of Cards”). And, with the one-two punch of Live TV, it might be able to convince you to ditch cable altogether.

That second upsell is Hulu’s real end-goal, but there is no step two without a step one.

All at once, Hulu redesigned its service (making Netflix look ancient by comparison), it offered something exclusive and glorious in the form of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and served something that few comprehensive video services do: access to stripped down live TV in conjunction with a vast streaming library.

In the past few months, cable providers have offered stripped down cable packages available across various devices, and Google/YouTube has launched a live TV subscription service, but neither has that same sweet combination of exclusive content, live TV access and a massive library of streaming content.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” might seem insignificant in the grand scheme, but why spend $40/month on Hulu Live, putting yourself through the rigamarole of cancelling cable, etc., when you could likely keep your cable + Netflix set up and be just as happy?

Few people will dive straight into the deep end. But “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was Hulu’s most watched premiere ever, is well worth $8/month, Hulu’s entry level price.

Hulu wants you to come on in, and have a look around. And maybe, eventually, Hulu’s Live TV play will be an offer that’s mighty hard to refuse.