HBO's Confederate and the creative bankruptcy of prestige TV
Casting a modern-day slave-holding South as an antihero? This is the best they could come up with?
Let's start by granting that Confederate — the recently announced and already derided HBO series about a fictional version of contemporary America that would exist if the South had won the Civil War — might actually bring insight and intelligence to a subject that has rarely been handled well.
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — who are teaming up again for Confederate — made a point of including two gifted black creators, Malcolm Spellman (Empire) and Nichelle Tramble Spellman (The Good Wife), both of whom seem confident that the series will handle its "weapons-grade material" (Spellman's phrase) with care. Still, critics of the (still unmade and thus unseen) show breathed a sigh of relief when Amazon announced its own series dedicated to counterfactual history: Black America wonders what would have happened if America's enslaved population had received three states as reparations. This struck many as the more promising project: a thought experiment in which black Americans form their own society and live as neighbors with their ex-oppressors seems like a rich dramatic premise, for one thing. For another, this is less saturated terrain: We aren't exactly drowning in fantasies — historical or otherwise — that grant black people equal power.
But there's another lesson here, too: Confederate proves that prestige television's signature move has run out of gas.
I'm speaking, of course, of the Great Antihero Experiment. We can trust that Confederate will do what prestige dramas are designed to do: Grant its modern-day slaveowners and slaves complexity and dimensionality. There is no greater American antihero than the Confederacy — that charismatic chunk of America that justified owning people because it was in their economic interest (and consistent with their culture) to do so. Because this is HBO — a network built on ethical shades of grey — we can expect that any show about this group winning will be at pains to emphasize their humanity as well as their depravity.
We have been laboring for some time under the illusion that this is the way you make great TV. Without denying that many antihero shows were good — some were even great — the antihero experiment was as conceptually facile as its results were obvious. It was a straightforward inversion of our collective tendency to make the good guy the hero. What happens, antihero TV asked, if you took a figure everyone agreed was kind of a bad guy, made him the protagonist, and treated him with complexity and care? (Did I just blow your mind?)
I joke. This was actually a perfectly fine and interesting question to ask several years ago when it was still a novel approach.
It isn't anymore. It's played out. The question has been asked and answered so many times that it's become its own cliché. We know what happens to the majority of a viewing audience when a protagonist is shown doing entertainingly evil things but having relatable human feelings as well: They root for him. Protagonism trumps ethics. Plenty of people admired (even loved) Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper, and that the first two especially became more and more sociopathic did not, in the end, change many minds. And hey, that was an interesting and noteworthy result! We know now what happens when the camera seduces you by centering a "bad" person — even shows them being really, really bad. What happens is that the viewer extends them all the understanding and empathy of which they're capable — and withholds that understanding from their (more virtuous, long-suffering, and boring) antagonists.
Those are not particularly exciting effects to apply to a show about slavery in America.
It might be argued that Confederate is doing the antihero thing, but with a twist: the historical counterfactual! Alas, this turns out to be more or less the same experiment writ large. The Man in the High Castle already attempted it by wondering what the world would be like if the Axis powers won. It started off as an interesting enough experiment in upended history, but it inevitably ended up where anyone could have guessed it would: dedicating time to the difficult family lives of Nazis. Scratch the epiphanies that result from this sort of thing and you'll find they're enragingly superficial (Me, tearily watching Obergruppenführer John Smith fret over his ailing son: Did you know Nazis cared about their children? You: Well, yes — that was kind of their whole thing. And it got out of hand.)
But within this kind of show, this kind of insight feels capacious, generous, deep.
It isn't, and it's worth noting how fatuous these efforts at "sympathetic complication" really are, particularly when the plan is to apply them to real and painful histories. Prestige dramas that seek to "complicate" a historical moment we've all come to agree was ugly are pretty universally implying that this consensus is wrong. They're saying hey, it's more complicated than that. And while that is never not true — this is yet another facile observation — what this effort to sidestep the conclusions of preachy historians tends to produce is something akin to reactionary white fan service. There is no question that some Nazis had good qualities. Very well. Is it necessary to show that the same would be true of contemporary slaveowners?
It could be argued that the point of such a series is to stage the horror of what modern-day slavery would look like. The trouble is that the truly ugly, shocking, upsetting things we could learn from the South winning the Civil War are limited by dint of how bad things already are. There will be police brutality, but more. There will be injustice, but more. There will be oppression, but more. I'd be surprised if any of that affected unconvinced viewers as much as Confederate's creators hope it will; black Americans are being routinely slain on camera (and in real life) without cause in this timeline, and a significant chunk of the American population seems to be more than fine with it.
What this contrarian formula instead tends to produce — and what's more likely to stick with people — are the intriguing redemptive correctives. Such a series is likely to include ambivalent white people who wish this make-believe world was better — decent slaveowners who wish they weren't trapped in the system, but hey, they love their families. Police who think it's wrong to keep people in shackles, but know their duty. Perhaps they'll go through some conversion, reach a breaking point, and help the oppressed.
Guess who's unlikely to get much in the way of sympathy (because prestige dramas find simple victimhood a tad, well, simplistic, so a corrective is called for)? The enslaved people. They'll be "complicated" too, of course — in ways that show them to be textured, angry, and psychologically believable. (Just like Skyler White.) Translated, that means they'll be even less appealing objects of sympathy than they were to begin with. The only thing worse than a victim is a less-than-perfect victim. No angels, they.
That's not exactly an unavailable narrative about black victims of police violence in the present.
Calls for critics of Confederate to "wait and see" are missing one important point, which is that the executives approving shows like these did not wait and see. They greenlit the project on the basis of little more than its pitch, producers, and potential profitability. That's fine (it's standard, in fact), but what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If the decision to make the show is based on broad strokes, the public — as the population to whom the show will be marketed — has just as much a right to weigh in.
That said, while I can and do object to the pitch for this show because I don't trust the architects of this image to handle the subject of slavery well, I object just as much on the grounds that the moves Confederate seems poised to make are boring. For all their aesthetic merits, shows like The Handmaid's Tale have demonstrated that there are real shortcomings to staging a hypothetical future where an embattled population has even fewer rights. (That there's an appetite for an entirely different kind of story is proven by Wonder Woman's astonishing box office success.) Antihero TV thought it was doing something genuinely new. In a way, it was. It was a worthwhile experiment. But it's time to accept the results and design some new questions. If the impulse guiding prestige television has been a kind of kneejerk reversal of expectations — a contrarian take on Good vs. Evil — framing its alternate histories as misogyny (but more) or racism (but worse) seems a funny way to go about it.
Let's hope the coming wave of prestige dramas recognizes that there's room for bolder experiments. I sincerely hope that Confederate is one of them, and proves my suspicions wrong.