These series reimagine a past altered by braver and bolder choices that shine a light on the present day.
Imagining alternative histories was a popular fantasy among this year's crop of new dramas and limited series. Any revision of the past tends to be in part about interrogating the present, as was certainly the case on the small screen this season. In The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns' HBO miniseries based on a novel by Philip Roth, a Jewish American family grapples with a version of history in which the United States sits out World War II. The easy and terrifying rise of a Nazi sympathizer to the U.S. presidency — Charles Lindbergh, in Roth's fictional retelling — has undeniable resonance, even more so now than when the novel was first published in 2004.
Other series likewise rewrote history to examine the legacies of racism and white supremacy as they have put a stamp on present days. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to writers of this year's limited and drama series, from a bold and heady superhero adaptation to two wildly divergent takes on post-World War II America, that showcase worlds in which "certain people made the right brave choices," says Hollywood co-creator Ian Brennan, and the desire "to revise this history of 'justice lost' " was satisfied, notes Hunters showrunner David Weil.
When co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan set out to write Hollywood, their intention wasn't to revise history. The seven-episode Netflix series started as a more straightforward look at Hollywood's golden age, after the end of World War II. Though the series they wound up making remains tethered to historical fact by way of inspiration and a handful of real-life figures, it is by far more fairy tale than nonfiction.
The turnaround came three episodes in, when the series' young hopefuls — a Black and gay screenwriter (played by Jeremy Pope), an aspiring Black actress (Laura Harrier) and a half-Filipino director (Darren Criss) — are about to face a dose of reality, in the form of rejection and exclusion by the movie studio machine. It was Murphy who asked the question, What if these characters actually get the chances they most certainly would have been denied? "It was an ecstatic moment," Brennan tells THR. "I've rarely had that experience in my career where you think you're writing one thing and you organically back into something that is very different and much better and kind of profound — and I think thematically more interesting."
With minor revisions to the first two episodes, the team moved forward with a new concept that lent the series more strength of purpose. "Once we discovered that the show was going to be about optimism and inclusion and righting historical wrongs, for lack of a better phrase," says Brennan, the direction of the story became clear, and many of the cameos by real historical figures came to feel extraneous and were cut. Ultimately, the two real-world stars the series focuses on are Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) and Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec). "Those two stories, we realized, were most deserving of a rewrite; we wanted to redeem these people who were let down by the society they lived in," Brennan says.
"There's a certain amount of pedantry in what we're doing, but that wasn't our intent," Brennan says of the series. "It was more about presenting what the world could feel like if certain people made the right, brave choices to really stick their necks out and try to create a bigger tent in this town." Murphy himself has been leading the charge with diversity initiatives both in front of and behind the camera, but the series speaks to how far there is still to go. "We knew from the beginning that even though we were writing about the '40s, we were really writing about Hollywood now, about the inequality of power, bad behavior, manipulation and abuse in an industry that famously has not been great at self-policing."
First-time showrunner David Weil was inspired to create Hunters to honor the legacy of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. Executive produced by Jordan Peele and starring Al Pacino, the series imagines a fictional band of vigilantes tracking down Nazis who've infiltrated the U.S., including in high levels of government. Shifting between the late 1970s and the height of the Third Reich, the Amazon drama is a violent revenge fantasy that aims to contend with the painful history of the Holocaust. "It is my belief that when an author tells a tale of trauma, it is also incumbent upon [him] to provide the medicine," Weil tells THR. "The most prominent fictional elements of the series — namely, the invention of a band of vigilantes hunting Nazis and doling out justice — [were] created in an effort to service the desire to reclaim power, to revise this history of 'justice lost.' "
But the series also came under fire for its representations of Nazi violence without basis in history. A scene that finds Jewish prisoners on a life-size chessboard in a game of slaughter was singled out and denounced by the Auschwitz Memorial as "dangerous foolishness and caricature" and fuel for future deniers of the Holocaust. Weil defended the scene as "representationally truthful" in a statement that responded to the backlash at the time. "My intent in fictionalizing specific acts of trauma was to shield against borrowing from a victim's or survivor's real life without their consent while still capturing the types of sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated," Weil says.
One fact-based incident depicted in the series that Weil says shocked many viewers is Operation Paperclip, the U.S. government's recruitment of German scientists and engineers, including Nazi war criminals, to heighten America's military advantage during the Cold War. The fact that viewers assumed this storyline was made up "forces all of us to question why we thought something like this couldn't have possibly been true," Weil says. "In doing so, it urges us to re-examine our government, our history, our systems of power and our current society."
Creator Damon Lindelof's Watchmen is a singular collision of multiple genres, including science fiction, superhero fantasy and alternative history. Inspired by the graphic novels by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for DC Comics, Lindelof's limited HBO series functions as a kind of sequel for devoted fans, but remains accessible to a broader audience in part because of its grounding in historical facts. The pilot episode opens with the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, immediately shaking up viewer expectations and planting the stakes of the series in the real world.
"The incorporation of the Tulsa massacre really does ground an otherwise very sci-fi, genre-heavy superhero show in a way that opens up the world" of Watchmen to viewers who might not otherwise have been interested, says Cord Jefferson, a co-writer on the series, which stars Regina King as a masked vigilante called Sister Night. "So much of superhero genre stories are about subtext," Jefferson says, addressing social ills obliquely, through allegory. "Watchmen the series makes the subtext text, which helps root it in reality and ground it in a way that felt satisfying for viewers," Jefferson says of the series' direct interrogation of white supremacy and racial violence.
Though the Tulsa massacre is historically accurate, Watchmen also takes place in a world where Robert Redford is president and the KKK uses mind control to turn Black people against one another. The team was especially thoughtful about its depictions of racist violence, whether based in history or invented for the series. "We had a lot of discussions about whether we were being glib with any material, whether we were doing anything that would be a disservice to the themes and subjects we were discussing," Jefferson says. "Ultimately, we decided to take some big swings," trusting that they were writing for a thoughtful and curious audience with a deep investment in the series' examination of racial politics, Jefferson says.
"One of the main themes of this series is generational trauma, how much the wounds of the past can travel through time and affect us in the present day," Jefferson says. "We need to understand that plans were laid centuries ago for what's happening in America today, and we're still feeling the effects. This idea that history is in the past and it doesn't matter anymore is totally inaccurate, both on a personal level and as a nation."
This story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.