Look, it’s unfair to review a show based on a press release. That’s not what this is about. To be honest, I can barely keep up with television that’s actually on, never mind keep track of every show that’s greenlit for production. But when it comes to David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, the showrunners for the biggest show on television Game Of Thrones, nothing’s ever small. So I, along with all of Twitter, learned yesterday about their post-Thrones project.
I don’t want to beat this show into the ground years before it even begins, but I think it’s important to look at why so many people reacted so poorly, and why it actually matters. Again, this isn’t a review of Confederate itself, which is a show that DOES NOT EXIST YET and should be given every chance to be seen before properly vetted.
And yet, Jesus Christ.
Five quick things about why this show, set in an alternate universe in which the South successfully seceded from the Union, feels ominous right from the start.
1) Benioff and Weiss will never be more in demand than they are now, and THIS is how they chose to call their shot?
Full confession: I’m not a Game Of Thrones fan. Haven’t seen an episode since season 4’s “Breaker Of Chains,” which sent my already on-the-fence butt far away from the poker table. But I appreciate the difficulty of putting this show together, and these two have a large hand in the show’s success. OF COURSE HBO wants to stay in business with them. Short of pitching a show which dramatizes those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA ads for six seasons, I can’t imagine them saying no to any idea. But why THIS idea? If you can pitch any show at all, and your pitch is, “But what if STILL slaves???”, then I worry about your creative vision.
2) This says as much about HBO’s desperate need for a post-Thrones hit as it does about the Benioff/Weiss mindset.
Look: I and probably half the internet are writing about a show that won’t air for years. Few of us are writing good things right now, but we are writing about it, which constitutes something of a win for HBO. But it’s a pretty tainted win, which says more about the cynical nature of news cycles than anything else. (There’s a reason Disney didn’t put out the Avengers: Infinity War trailer after it premiered at D23: They got a full news cycle about how it WASN’T available online, and then will get another cycle once it IS, probably after Comic-Con.) It’s not that HBO is against quality, but it’s just as focused (if not more so) on being buzzworthy. Confederate is nothing if not buzzworthy. But what type of hornet’s nest will it drum up?
3) Timing is everything, and the timing of this is really bad.
I don’t buy the whole “no one complained about The Man In the High Castle, so this is pretty hypocritical to complain about this show now” argument. First of all, people did complain, especially in the second season. I personally found the show too boring to even complain about, and gave up after a few episodes. But there’s a difference between a small show on Amazon that debuted in 2015 and an HBO show spearheaded by the two men who have steered the last watercooler show left on TV that will debut in the post-Trump era. That’s not to say everything was hunky dory in America 30 months ago, but you can’t remotely compare the tenor and terror of life now to what was happening then.
On top of that, how can this NOT color the view of Thrones itself, both retroactively and going forth? Plenty of fans are mad about the announcement, and this will inevitably dampen some spirit at the very point in which there’s never been greater interest in the show. HBO tried to capitalize on that with that announcement, and instead threw cold water on it. It was a fairly spectacular backfire, and while Twitter does not equal all fandom, those most vocal about the show have chimed in loudly and quickly. Given how these voices steer conversation around the show, look for that conversation to change over the next few weeks.
Or take the comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, a show I vociferously praised on this very site a few months ago. Part of why I quit Thrones was the post-mortem reaction by key creative figures (including Benioff and Weiss) to the climatic scene in “Breaker Of Chains.” Nothing about their explanations made me think they had clue one about what they had just unleashed. And while no creator of any piece of art has a way to control how her or his art is interpreted, there are certain areas of creative exploration that are trickier than others. The idea of the Bad Fan comes from Emily Nussbaum, among others, who noted the large number of Breaking Bad fans who straight up hated Skyler White for keeping Walter from achieving his criminal destiny. She was the problem, in their eyes, not him. The idea of people watching a show in which slavery is a thriving, bustling industry and identifying with that vision seems inevitable. I don’t think for a second Benioff and Weiss would intentionally portray slave owners in a sympathetic way. But why even risk something in a society this charged? Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It draws power from and delivers energy back to the society in which it’s creating. That circle can either encourage negativity or foster positivity. Which gets me to the final point…
5) Why does Blockbuster TV have to be based in an inherently negative scenario?
Let’s assume, for a second, that HBO wants a billion people to watch their programs. As they should! Seems like a good business model. Attract the most eyeballs that will pay for their programming and/or share their HBO Go with so many people that the app straight up never works when it should. Fine and dandy. Why go with an inherently bleak scenario in which years of pain will possibly be avenged? Yes, that’s the Thrones model, and yes, it seems to attract an undeniable number of viewers. But it’s not the ONLY model. Look at NBC’s This Is Us, a bonafide hit that has conflict some might call “tiny.” Those are nice people trying to do good things, and they cry a lot, and tons of people watch that show. It fills a need. It demonstrates that a Friday Night Lights-esque approach is not antithetical to viewership. We have Luck and Vinyl as recent examples of “can’t miss shows” that instantly failed despite all the “right” elements. Going dark and dreary isn’t a guarantee of quality, and certainly isn’t when the world itself often feels dark and dreary. Rather than going to what I’d dub a controversial but ultimately extremely safe well, what if the pair had looked at the NBC hit, looked at themselves, and decided the world needed more Jack Pearson and less Ramsay Snow? I’m not saying they can’t take advantage of HBO’s pay cable standards and practices, but what if they produced a show that was less dependent on a complex, multi-season plot and entirely dependent on the quieter character moments that define the very best that Thrones has to offer? Have all the sex you like! It’s not TV, it’s HBO, blah blah blah. But the real challenge isn’t creating an alternate universe. It’s creating compelling characters that didn’t come from an pre-written set of books. I’d like to see if Benioff and Weiss have it in them, and I bet others do too.
Or, put another way: Who wouldn’t watch This Is Us Fucking?