Write what you know
Why “Confederate” is such a departure from HBO’s own playbook
I don’t like the idea of being “against” ideas, art, or television writers, since all three are the lifeblood of my family. But I can’t shake the feeling that HBO has just departed from its own long-time model of success for original series. The backstory:
HBO recently announced a new series called “Confederate” from Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It was without doubt, the most poorly thought-through rollout of any television show since “Heil, Honey I’m Home” — a show that actually existed on British television. Even HBO’s own president of programming admitted they biffed it hard.
If the show makes it to air, it will be an alternate history of the United States, if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. You can read the very personal, thoughtful reasons why this upsets so many black Americans, starting with this excellent Hollywood Reporter article. Then tune in to Twitter during Game of Thrones tonight and follow the #NoConfederate hashtag. The hashtag was launched by a collective of black women including April Reign, who has already proven she can shake the entertainment world with a single tweet.
Here is another, smaller, reason, one that comes my experience as a loyal HBO subscriber. Almost all of HBO’s original (non-adapted) series share a common element — they are devoutly hyperlocal.
I don’t believe the word hyperlocal has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary just yet, but Wikipedia defines it as:
“information about a well-defined community with its primary focus directed toward the concerns of the population in that community.”
Or as it’s known on HBO, “The Sopranos.”
All television storytelling was hyperlocal at the start. Scripted television was filmed on sound stages, and the fledgling networks could only build so many sets. This explains why there were, and still are, so many shows about hospitals.
Well before HBO was a prestigious, Emmy award-winning storytelling machine, it was experimenting with new forms of close quarters storytelling—go back and watch “Dream On”, “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Oz.”
(Don’t @ me — “Sex and the City” was adapted from a book by Candace Bushnell. But also, yes, you’re absolutely right.)
From 1999 on, HBO’s critical and commercial success was due to a network-wide embrace of hyperlocality.
The alpha and the omega of this concept is David Simon’s “The Wire.”
(What? You haven’t watched “The Wire? Let me yell at you and lend you my HBO GO password!)
From there, HBO Originals stayed local, taking deep dives into small worlds. Whether you liked or disliked the shows, think of how specific the focus was on “Six Feet Under,” “Carnivale,” “John from Cincinnati,” “Lucky Louie,” “Deadwood,” “Big Love,” “Eastbound & Down,” “Entourage,” “Looking” and “Treme.” Even “Westworld,” adapted from the 1973 movie of the same name, is about one seriously dysfunctional corporate family wreaking havoc on a large piece of Western land.
One exception was “Rome,” a 2005 co-production with the BBC. Let’s not argue over whether it’s an adaptation of Caesar’s “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” and agree that it was HBO’s biggest attempt at world-building yet. It lasted only two seasons. The show was character-based, historically accurate, full of bonking, and all the other qualities that make a good HBO show, but it was expensive as hell to shoot, and even as a fan of the show, I felt removed from beating heart of the era.
And then there’s Game of Thrones. Thanks to George R.R. Martin’s incredibly complex novels, showrunners Benioff and Weiss have been able to realize a complex fictional world that stretches across continents, hops between a dizzying number of characters with ease, and is able to tackle taboo subjects like uh, incest, in the name of staying faithful to the source material. The huge success of the show and its creative team has led HBO to believe it’s ready for a higher level of epic storytelling. And in a larger sense, that’s true. Except:
The best of HBO’s dramatic shows have often had another thing in common. It’s the first rule of all writing — write what you know. David Chase grew up in New Jersey; David Simon covered Baltimore as a reporter; Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer spent almost three years researching polygamy in America before writing “Big Love.”
Conversely, I believe Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” failed to ignite because all the consulting producers in the world couldn’t incept the actual reality of present-day working journalists into Sorkin’s mind. Or, for that matter, the reality of of present-day working women.
The very concept of “Confederate” breaks two of HBO’s most powerful rules of success. 1) If it’s original, go small, and 2) write what you know. That second one is about a thousand percent more important if you’re two rich white dudes about to reimagine America’s greatest sin as a present-day reality.
When it comes to racial inequality in America, our reality contains an infinity of personal stories waiting to be told by the people who know them best. “Fruitvale Station,” “Selma,” “Moonlight” on film; “Underground,” “Insecure” “Queen Sugar” on television. “13th” — the one documentary everyone in America should watch right now, is filled with heartbreaking reality, as is the constantly unfolding stories of hip-hop and rap artists. I want to see the book “Chokehold” made into a documentary. I need to see Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” adapted into a mini-series. I can’t wait to see Black Panther, but I’m almost more excited to watch Black Twitter celebrate Black Panther.
If you follow along with the #NoConfederate hashtag on Twitter tonight and in the days to come, there’s one question you’ll see over and over again — why reimagine history when it’s still all so real? Why create a fictional world that’s worse, when you can create one that’s better? In the upcoming Black Panther movie, the fictional kingdom of Wakanda is described as being a century ahead of the rest of the world.
That’s the alternate reality I’m excited to see.