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The continuing popularity of alternate history TV shows

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May 27, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

The Darkest Timeline is a phrase born out of the Season 3 Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory” that has since become a shorthand of sorts for whatever horror the world is experiencing. Troy's (Donald Glover) scream upon seeing his apartment is on fire can easily sum up any of the years from 2016 to present. Sitting alongside five other timelines, this multi-verse episode of Community is a different spin on a “What If?” narrative, which often looks to a global event as the jumping-off point. 

While the “darkest timeline” approach is a popular option for the genre, taken by Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth in the novels The Man in the High Castle and The Plot Against America (both of which have been adapted for television in the last decade), not all alt-histories take the worst-case scenario approach to the “here’s what you could’ve won” concept. Recently, several optimistic variations have joined the fray including the Netflix limited series Hollywood and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Differing greatly in style and content, both projects chose show business and Los Angeles as the foundation rather than politics (though the two overlap, of course). What do the subjects at the heart of these differing timelines say about the period we currently live in?    

Credit: Amazon Prime 

Fiction that takes a real event and imagines a different result did not begin with the outcome of WWII, even if the depiction of a world in which the Nazis were victorious is a popular jumping-off point of this genre. Some examples go back to the Romans with the defeat of Alexander the Great providing a counter-historical imagining in Titus Livius’ History of Rome (alternatively referred to as Ab Urbe Condita Libri), which was written between 27 and 9 BC. In the 19th century, Napoleon’s losses were turned into a victory for fictional purposes, and If It Had Happened Otherwise was a 1931 collection of essays offering up versions of what could’ve been across history — including who Mary, Queen of Scotts, married and who won the American Civil War.

Mid-20th-century science fiction narratives saw a boom in this kind of story; two world wars and atomic anxiety are a heady inspirational combination for depicting a catastrophic reality, a topic explored in Susan Sontag’s still relevant “The Disaster of Imagination.” In 1962, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was published, detailing the Axis Powers' victory over the Allies in WWII (with a later twist in the novel). 

Adapted for TV in 2015, creator Frank Spotnitz probably didn’t foresee just how depressingly relevant the villains at the center of this story would become. Coincidence does play a role in the timing of a series, but there are also cultural factors that feed into TV shows and movies greenlit to match the mood of the globe, as well as how viewers respond to them. David Simon’s 2020 HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America takes on a new urgency when factoring in the current administration. “If you read the novel it's startling how allegorical it is to our current political moment. He wrote it obviously without Trump in mind. This was published in 2004,” Simon told NPR in a recent interview. Fact is often stranger than fiction, so something that wasn’t written with a particular intention or figure can still reflect a real-life scenario. 

Credit: Michele K./HBO

In The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh — a Nazi sympathizer — beats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, unleashing a wave of anti-Semitism. The child at the heart of the story is a version of author Philip Roth, making it a personal story in a version of history that didn’t happen. Adapting this novel now makes a statement about the current fractured state of not just the United States, but the world. Allegory is one way of translating and understanding events; by setting something in a past that took a turn right instead of left, it puts distance between the divisive present and a historical event with a different outcome. However, the audience recognizes and draws the line between what could’ve been and the very immediate threats to the political landscape. Art helps us make sense of trauma and alternate histories help reflect anxieties by portraying a turbulent past that never was. It is why a political event such as an election or the victors of a world war tend to provide the framework of these narratives.     

Debuting in November 2019, For All Mankind is one of Apple TV+’s flagship shows, taking a defining moment of the 20th century and flipping the outcome. In this case, the USSR landed on the moon before Neil Armstrong could utter the immortal words of its title. At first glance, this doesn’t sound as monumental as who became president or who were victorious in WWII, but Ronald D. Moore’s drama details the impact this would have on the morale of the nation at the height of Cold War tension.

Source: Apple

In the first episode, hope is put on the chopping block if the Apollo 11 mission fails. It is not the kind of pep talk you typically get from the Houston control center, but in those versions of the moon landing, the US has not been beaten and the president isn’t breathing down their necks. The butterfly effect begins in the pilot episode including Ted Kennedy canceling his Chappaquiddick shindig — the weekend that resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Without this scandal, Kennedy is a potential rival to Nixon in the next election.

Rather than turning away from the space program, NASA has to keep toe-to-toe with their rivals so when the Soviets send female astronauts to the moon, it gives women a chance to make their mark in this prominent role. Alternate history doesn't have to mean a timeline with no progress — in fact, in this case, women get an opportunity to be part of this program long before they did in reality.    

Credit: Hulu

A "What If?" narrative set in the 1960s will likely deal with the Kennedy family in some capacity. For All Mankind opens with a montage of JFK's space race speeches that are a major part of his legacy. The 1963 assassination tore a hole in this decade, which is what Stephen King’s novel-turned-Hulu-miniseries 11.22.63 centers on, and the conspiracy that trails the event also makes it ideal for this type of story. Protagonist Jake Epping travels back to 1960 to stop the Kennedy assassination; however, when (spoiler alert) Jake successfully stops the shooting, it has a detrimental impact. Returning to 2016, Jake finds a wasteland because, after Kennedy’s two terms, Alabama Governor George Wallace becomes president. This is a case of being careful what you wish for — the grass is definitely not always greener on the other side. 

Changing events is part of the DNA of Quantum Leap. which focuses on the lives of normal people as Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) leaps into various humans to change the past for the better. Occasionally, big-ticket names such as JFK would show up, including the double-bill in which Sam leaps into Lee Harvey Oswald. Sam was never meant to stop Kennedy’s death, rather he leaps into a Secret Service Agent’s body just in time to save the First Lady. In the Quantum Leap version of events, Jackie is also a victim on this November day. It is surprising the early ‘90s ABC show has yet to have a reboot — with the right cast, it could be great — and there is something incredibly hopeful about this series because it focuses on small stories (with the odd exception).  

Credit: NBC

Timeless and Outlander have opposing motivations concerning the preservation of history. The Timeless team does everything in their power to keep the world as it was (featuring the likes of the aforementioned Charles Lindbergh and JFK), whereas the Frasers attempt to change the Battle of Culloden and are currently on the cusp of the American Revolution. These shows look at whether history can be changed rather than a version of the world that is different from our own.

Neither dips their toe into multiverse theories, which is at the heart of Fringe's parallel worlds. Some things are better over there, while others are not. One common thread denoting an alt-timeline is the proliferation of blimps. The many-worlds theory suggests infinite outcomes exist alongside one another; for example, the Nazis were victorious, and simultaneously they were defeated. The parameters for alternate historical events are infinite. 

Credit: Sony Pictures

WWII and the Cold War cover a period of 60 years, so it is unsurprising this tumultuous period provides seemingly endless opportunities for storytelling. Adding the concept of alt-timelines opens up the potential to incorporate allegorical tales, a bleak version of reality, or even wish fulfillment. Hollywood is the land of make-believe and there is no one this town likes to write about more than itself. Quentin Tarantino rewrote the end of WWII using cinema as the fiery backdrop in Inglourious Basterds before taking on the infamous Sharon Tate murder and the so-called end of the 1960s in Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood. The latter is something Joan Didion discusses in her seminal essay “The White Album,” observing the mood of August 9, 1969. “The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.” In Tarantino’s version of events this date still ends in a bloodbath, but rather than Tate and her friends, the perpetrators are killed. What follows in the days and weeks after remains unseen, but this “happy ending” is still a bloody one. 

Taking the optimistic post-WWII energy that infiltrated the movie industry, Ryan Murphy asks what if Tinseltown had opened its arms to everyone and not just the stories of the white, straight and cisgender. Hollywood begins like a run-of-the-mill story focusing on youthful faces trying to become the Next Big Thing before peeling back the "What If?" layers. Righting the wrongs of the past comes with good intentions but it feels like it sells short real-life figures like Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong, and their very real struggles. Tension is lost in the second half of the series, which culminates in an Oscar ceremony that should have been. Rather than portraying the truth of this decade, Hollywood embraces the magic of movie illusion. The ability to imagine what could've been will be the daydream some will find refreshing while others will only see how disingenuous it is. 


Wistful romanticism is a big part of the Hollywood aesthetic, which is currently in short supply in the real world. When times are tough, this genre can either reveal a utopia or show that things are not as bad as they could be. Philip K. Dick was influenced by Ward Moore's 1953 novel Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy had won the Civil War. A similar story was recently slated to be made for TV. Yes, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were slated to make Confederate for HBO, but the reaction to this particular historical revisionist tale was not met with open arms. Alt-history is a very popular genre; however, two white guys helming a show in which slavery is still legal was incredibly misguided, and it didn't go beyond pre-productionWatchmen instead became the alternate history to watch, dealing with race and real events like the 1921 Tulsa massacre. The Watchmen graphic novel debuted in 1985 when the Cold War was still precarious and the fear of nuclear annihilation was very real, the TV show arrived during an equally unstable period.

When the world feels like it is on fire, escapism takes on different forms including finding entertainment in a past that looks worse than our present. To borrow from Robert Kennedy who, paraphrasing a George Bernard Shaw quote, wasn't talking about alt-history narratives: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.” But in an alternate timeline, maybe he was.  


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