HBO can thank “Game of Thrones” for a lot of things. But high associated with the show’s massive popularity has been balanced this summer by the headaches associated with “Confederate,” a new series being developed under the aegis of its producers.
Hollywood’s creative community harbors a rebellious streak. So when creative talent is awash in success, it’s not uncommon for them to test the latitude provided by taking creative risks with their next project.
For “Thrones” producers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, that took the form of “Confederate,” which has prompted a backlash based strictly on its premise: An alternate history in which the South seceded, slavery lingered into modern times and the country is girding for a third Civil War.
However the idea might have sounded, it’s a virtual certainty that HBO felt pressure to say yes to it, lest their marquee creative team take their next program elsewhere. One can only imagine the headlines that a Netflix or Showtime would have made by landing the first new series “from the producers of ‘Game of Thrones’” had the pay channel passed.
Benioff and Weiss, meanwhile, having basked in acclaim and awards for “Thrones,” followed up with a provocative concept – a pattern that has recurred throughout TV history.
In the late 1980s, for example, ABC landed producer Steven Bochco in a sweeping 10-series deal. Coming off major hits for NBC like “L.A. Law” and “Hill Street Blues,” one of Bochco’s early ABC shows was “Cop Rock,” a weekly musical that turned out to be a ratings dud.
Although the show is actually underrated creatively speaking, mounting a police drama with original songs each week was recognized even before its premiere as a major gamble. Asked at the time how he could take such a chance, Bochco told a colleague, “With my deal, how can I not?”
That mentality is common, as producers have leveraged the freedom that comes from a hit to unleash pet projects that can be limited in their commercial appeal. In TV’s olden days, when hit shows routinely drew 30 or 40 shares (“share” being a percentage of the viewing audience), executives were fond of saying, “All producers have a 12-share show in them just waiting to get out.”
Riding high on NBC’s “Family Ties,” producer Gary David Goldberg created “Brooklyn Bridge,” a deeply personal single-camera show about growing up as part of a Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Like “Cop Rock,” the CBS series was impeccably produced but didn’t last.
Similarly, Bochco’s “NYPD Blue” co-creator, David Milch, followed his acclaimed HBO western series “Deadwood” with “John From Cincinnati,” a surreal surf drama that was largely panned by critics.
At the time, New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin wrote, “It’s maddening to see a show this bad from someone so talented, but that’s how it works when you’re a real artist, and that’s how it should work. The person who creates a ‘Deadwood’ is also probably going to make a ‘John from Cincinnati’ one day. If you let him.”
More recently, “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes tested the strength of her clout at ABC with “Still Star-Crossed,” a drama produced under her Shondaland banner that sought to continue the story of Romeo and Juliet – and quickly met a fate similar to those ill-fated lovers.
As noted, Hollywood’s leading creative figures have earned the right to take chances – and should. But as the reaction to “Confederate” underscores, pushing boundaries raises the likelihood of falling over the edge, or somebody pushing back.