'My hope is that people will judge the actual material as opposed to what it could be, should be, or might be,' says Casey Bloys

By Natalie Abrams
July 26, 2017 at 07:09 PM EDT
Art Streiber

HBO president Casey Bloys admitted to reporters on Wednesday that the network botched the announcement of its controversial new slavery-focused TV series, Confederate.

During Wednesday’s Television Critics Association’s press tour in Pasadena, California, Bloys addressed the backlash over the drama series, which hails from Game of Thrones bosses David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, saying the rollout of the news was “misguided,” but that he hopes viewers “will judge the actual material as opposed to what it could be.”

Confederate imagines the events leading to a Third American Civil War. The series will 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, according to HBO. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate, and the families of people in their thrall.

The backlash to the project was swift, with some detractors accusing HBO of making a show that sounds like a white supremacist fantasy. Some critics also took issue with Benioff and Weiss tackling the subject as white men. The project does have two notable writer-producers of color in Nichelle Tramble Spellman (Justified) and Malcolm Spellman (Empire). (More details here.)

“File this under hindsight is 20/20,” Bloys told reporters Wednesday. “If I could do it over again, HBO’s mistake — not the producers’ — was the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive that requires such care and thought on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided on our part. [We] had the benefit of sitting with these four producers, we heard why they wanted to do the show, what they were excited about, and why it was important to them, so we had that context, but I completely understand that somebody reading the press release would not have that at all. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve rolled it out with the producers on the record so people understood where they were coming from.”

Bloys admitted that HBO expected some level of backlash, but says he still hopes the fans will give the show a chance once they have more insight into what the quartet of creators are actually planning to explore. “The bet for us is on our talent — on Nichelle, Malcolm, Dan, and David; they’re going to be the difference. My hope is that people will judge the actual material as opposed to what it could be, should be, or might be, and they — and we — will rise or fall based on the quality of that material. … These four writers are at the top of their game; they can do whatever they want. This is what they’re passionate about, so I’m going to bet on that.”

Though scripts for the project have yet to be written, Bloys notes the producers have a specific depiction of slavery in mind. “The producers have said they’re not looking to do Gone with the Wind 2017,” Bloys says. “It’s not whips and plantations. It’s what they’d imagine a modern-day institution of slavery might look like.”

Confederate follows two other recent depictions of alternate history: Man in the High Castle, which imagines what would happen if Germany and Japan had won World War II, and Handmaid’s Tale, which explores a dystopian future in which women have no rights. The latter has been particularly topical in the current political era.

“I think Malcolm said it best in one of his interviews: ‘This is weapons-grade material we’re dealing with,'” Bloys said. “Everybody understands that there’s a high degree of difficulty with getting this right. But the thing that excites them that excited us is if you can get it right, there’s a real opportunity to advance the race discussion in America. Again, what Malcolm said in one of his interviews was, ‘If you can draw a line between what we’re seeing in the country today with voter suppression, mass incarceration, lack of access to public education or healthcare, and draw a direct line between that and our past and our shared history, that’s an important line to draw and a conversation worth having.’ So it is very difficult, and they acknowledge there’s a high degree of difficulty, but they all feel — and we support them — that it’s a risk worth taking.”

Still, Bloys says the critical backlash has afforded the producers early insight on how the audience will react to a story like Confederate. “In a case like this, even if our rollout wasn’t ideal, the response is valuable to the producers as they go to write and think about it,” Bloys said. “Hearing the reactions is invaluable. Again, the key to all of this is the context and hearing from the creators themselves and what they want to do. The fact that they have a shared vision and shared sensitivity to the material that they’re taking on, so the more people hear from the producers themselves why it’s important to them, the more it may make sense. People still may not like the show or may not like the idea for it, but they could at least hear from the producers why they’re trying to do it. All we can do is ask that people judge the final product of these artists and not what it could be or might be.”

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