Alternate history series have been all the rage for quite a few months now, something “Watchmen” executive producer Damon Lindelof says could be happening because “alternate history is just more palatable than real history.”
His HBO limited series adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel of the same name explores the 1921 Tulsa massacre, but it also dips into fantastical incidents such as an “11/2” Dimensional Incursion Event. And “Watchmen” was just one such Emmy-contending series that took reality as we know it and gave it a new spin, crafting different histories than our own to reshape the lives of characters.
A couple of others were cautionary tales: Amazon Prime Video’s “The Man in the High Castle,” based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, presents the final season of its vision of what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War II, while HBO’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” creates a version of the U.S. in the 1940s that presents anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh as a political leader.
But more often, the shows provide wish fulfillment or are downright aspirational. Amazon’s “Hunters” follows the titular band of Nazi-trackers taking revenge against murderers in post-War America; Apple TV Plus’ “For All Mankind” explores space exploration after the Soviet Union has beaten the U.S. to the moon, and Netflix’s “Hollywood” delivers an extremely inclusive and progressive look at 1940s Tinseltown.
Many of these shows mine similar themes and even the same time period, proving a longing for a redo — from the executives that bought the projects, and from the writers creating them.
Ronald D. Moore, who co-created “For All Mankind” with Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi, says from the beginning their goal was to take on the history of the American space program, starting in 1969, and write “a more positive history.”
In “For All Mankind,” the inciting incident — that cosmonauts landed on the moon before astronauts did — inspires NASA and the U.S. government to a new level of dedication, and “because we put more emphasis on the space program, good things happen,” Moore says.
The first season ends in 1974, but a very different 1974 than the one in our current history books: Nixon is not president, the Equal Rights Amendment has passed and America has built the first moon base devoted to long-term habitation.
Things aren’t perfect in this 1974, but that was by design, because “we’re still human beings,” notes Moore. But the “conflict and tragedy and trauma” that does exist still arcs “in a better direction [and] the positives are going to outweigh the negatives.”
Even more optimistic in its approach is “Hollywood,” the first series fully produced under Ryan Murphy’s lucrative deal with Netflix. In it, male escorts who dream of becoming Hollywood power players actually do become Hollywood power players. And further, they are allowed to do it without hiding who they are or what they want to say. Archie (Jeremy Pope), a young, gay Black screenwriter, holds hands with his boyfriend Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) on the Oscars red carpet and kisses him when he wins; Raymond (Darren Criss), a half-Filipino director, gets to make a movie featuring a Black leading lady (Laura Harrier) who doesn’t have to play a maid.
Writer, director and executive producer Janet Mock says the what-if version of “Hollywood” was created because Murphy said he was tired of the current news headlines. “Our world is so f—ed,” she recalls him saying. “I think audiences want to see something that’s going to make them feel good.”
So the idea of “Hollywood” became for its core characters to completely upend the system by the end, by challenging the roles that women, people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community can play in front of and behind the camera. This included Mock introducing the idea of a young Black woman becoming the star of the film-within-the-show.
Mock says she was inspired by real-life mid-century actresses Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to ask the other writers “Where is the Black girl?” in the early version of the show.
“Are we making an alternative universe? We’re putting Patti LuPone, a bored, neglected housewife socialite, into power — what if she made an unconventional decision?” Mock says she pitched. “That energized and shifted the whole focus of the series.”
By the end of the season, the characters of “Hollywood” live in a much more inclusive time than the real 1948 — one that features a very different path for a young Rock Hudson, especially.
“We gave Rock a lot more agency in his life, in ways that he didn’t have [in reality],” says Mock. “For Ryan, as a gay man who has always been out in his career, it was his superpower. He leaned into the gay and then he created a whole brand from that. And I think that he wanted to give Rock that same sense of pride in being a queer man.”
Positivity wasn’t the point for “Watchmen,” a show that is set in a world in which members of law enforcement must wear masks to protect their identities from criminals and vigilantes. Still, Lindelof says he and his writers’ room “wanted to give the illusion that the world was better in some ways, but then the closer you looked at it, the more familiar it was.”
He reasons: “There has to be a certain degree of negativity for there to be any degree of positivity. If you’re just presenting a sheer utopia, people will reject it.”