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HBO president: Confederate announcement was a blunder, but show is worth the risk

(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Usually, the HBO panel is a highlight of the Television Critics Association press tour—or at the very least, it’s grist for the TV reporting mill. This year was no exception, though the furor wasn’t, as the network might have hoped, necessarily sparked by The Deuce or Curb Your Enthusiasm panels. Following the announcement of the controversial (to say the least) new series Confederate, anticipation was high for the executive session with HBO programming president Casey Bloys, who seemed aware that the hot seat would be practically on fire at that point.

It’s now been a week since HBO trumpeted the news that Game Of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are developing a modern-day slavery drama. Confederate will reportedly present an alternate present, one in which slavery was never abolished. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is. And yet, Benioff and Weiss said the project was one they’d “discussed... for years, originally as a concept for a feature film.” The Thrones duo are serving as showrunners, but they’ll share writing duties with Malcolm Spellman and Nichelle Tramble Spellman, two writers who have been making exceptional TV, for black audiences and others. Despite this provenance, the writers, producers, and premium-cable network were criticized for essentially pushing some “slavery fanfic.”

Benioff, Weiss, and the Spellmans quickly responded to the near-immediate backlash, asking viewers to reserve their judgment while acknowledging their concerns. Bloys had similar talking points, which he might have been running through his mind in the roughly three minutes it took for someone to pose a Confederate-related question. That restraint from critics belied their focus, as several queries centered on just how questionable the premise is, even if the show is still in the nascent stages. “If I could do it over again, our mistake was the idea that we would be able to announce an idea that is so sensitive and requires such care on the part of the producers in a press release was misguided.” Bloys said. “We could have done a better job with the press rollout. We knew the idea would be controversial.”

That response was rephrased for related questions, but Bloys is still fully backing the show. The HBO president believes it’s worth the risk, though the network will presumably show more caution when making any future announcements about this modern slave drama. Like the makers of Confederate, he advised patience: “We will rise or fall based on the quality of that material.” As for concerns that Confederate will just showcase more violence against black people, he assured critics it won’t simply be “whips and chains.” Bloys said the series is no updated Gone With The Wind: “If you can get it right, there’s a real opportunity to advance the racial discussion in America.”

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