There are alternate universes, and then there are alternate universes.
One, potentially, is the universe envisioned by Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, whose next project for HBO, announced Wednesday, is called Confederate, and would take place “in an alternate timeline, where the Southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution.”
Another possible world is the one proposed by one of Weiss and Benioff’s two African American partners, Nichelle Tramble Spellman, who suggested, during the quartet’s phone interview Thursday with Josef Adalian of Vulture, that critics’ visceral (or, in my case, stomach-churning) responses to HBO’s announcement might be premature:
“I do understand their concern,” said the writer and executive producer, a veteran of The Good Wife, whose husband, Malcolm Spellman (Empire), is also a partner, writer, and executive producer on Confederate, the idea for which came from Weiss and Benioff.
“I wish their concern had been reserved to the night of the premiere, on HBO, on a Sunday night, when they watched, and then they made a decision after they watched an hour of television as to whether or not we succeeded in what we set out to do. The concern is real. But I think that the four of us are very thoughtful, very serious, and not flip about what we are getting into in any way. What I’ve done in the past, what Malcolm has done in the past, what the D.B.’s have done in the past, proves that. So, I would have loved an opportunity for the conversation to start once the show was on the air.”
Hey, I used to live and write in that world. I loved that world. People made shows, I reviewed them (although usually before they premiered, not after). I tried not to worry too much about what was in the pipeline, because the pipeline has a way of getting clogged. Pilots, brilliant or not, often don’t make it to series, anyway.
But that world is over. We live in the universe of the hot take, where insta-opinions are currency. And I can understand how nuts that must feel for people just starting out with an idea, particularly for a show that’s probably two to three years away. There is one more season of Game of Thrones after all.
At the same time, criticism is about more than giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a finished product. It’s an ongoing conversation about the place of this kind of entertainment in our culture.
The HBO programming executive who decided a story that included slavery as “a modern institution” was a great idea is the same one who has been remarkably tone-deaf about sexualized violence toward women in HBO dramas, including Game of Thrones. I wish I trusted his judgment on this. I don’t.
And then there’s Game of Thrones, whose own alternate universe is pretty white, as British actor and Star Wars star John Boyega attempts to point out in his cover interview with GQ. “There are no black people on Game of Thrones,” Boyega says in the interview. “To be fair, there are, like, three,” adds the interviewer, who’s undercounting, too, but not by so much to suggest the show’s cast of hundreds is diverse.
That doesn’t disqualify Benioff and Weiss from casting a wider net for their next, very different show. But they work in an industry where minorities and women regularly get passed over for jobs because of perceived lack of experience in an area. Even assuming that I thought a show about a modern-day Confederacy was a great idea at a time when a worrying number of people seem to miss the old one, what makes Benioff and Weiss, beyond being “history nerds” with the clout that comes with having a hit show, believe they’re the people to bring it to us?
In a more egalitarian Hollywood, we might be seeing pitches for all kinds of alternate universes. Who would get to make the show, for instance, about a United States that wasn’t built on the unpaid labor of enslaved people? What might that country look like? Would Nichelle and Malcolm Spellman have been able to get an idea of their own creation on HBO without the guys from Game of Thrones?
I’m all for exploring new and different worlds — past, present, and future. But until everyone has an equal shot at the time machine, please don’t expect me not to ask questions about where the people with the keys are headed.