Almost every piece of fiction is, in fact, about creating an alternate reality. No matter the verisimilitude of a story, not matter how “real” the characters feel, the simple truth is they aren’t. They’re creations of a writer who controls their every movement and word. Our world is not their world for the basic reason that they don’t exist in our world.
Alternate histories, of course, take this premise and run with it. What if the Allies lost World War II? What if the American Revolution never happened? Stories that ask such questions are all about messing with history. The only limits on the changes you make are whether they make some sense in relation to the big change.
Things are a little trickier when you’re telling a story set in the past that doesn’t have quite the same ambition. If you’re not really changing the past, how much of “history” as we know it can you play with? And how? Two current TV shows deal with this issue, one much more successfully.
Vinyl, on HBO, has a hell of a pedigree. The show, about the head of a struggling record company in the early-to-mid 1970s, boasts Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, and Terrence Winter (of The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire fame) among its creative forces. The company is on the brink, the main character is a coked-up killer, and, well, there are other complications. It’s gotten a fairly cool reception from critics, but has already been renewed for a second season. I’m not sure I’ll be on board for it.
Although I have several issues with the show, the one that really drives me nuts (and prompted this post) involves how the fictional record label interacts with real world stars. Already this season we’ve seen our heroes interact with Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, and Elvis. While there’s a chance to play that for fun, or verisimilitude boosting background, the show doesn’t go that route. Instead, we’re shown multiple instances of the fictional record label trying to do business with these luminaries that we know won’t because we’re still in the “real” world. Whatever conversations you might dream up for Alice Cooper to say in your version of 1973, you’re not going so far as to have him sign with a fictional record label. It drains these incidents of any tension or drama, regardless of how well they’re executed.
Compare that approach with the one taken by FX’s The Americans. It’s got considerably higher fictional stakes – telling the story of a pair of Soviet spies posing as a suburban American family during height of the Cold War 1980s. They should bump into historical biggies every week, yet they don’t. In fact, the only major historical fact in play in the series is the one that hangs over the whole thing like a specter – we know that these folks play for the losing team.
Yet, the drama of the series still works because our “heroes” aren’t interacting with bigger specific historical events that have happened around them. They never try to assassinate Reagan, for example (although I suppose you could conspiracy theory that one into real history), or engage in some epic act of sabotage that didn’t happen in the real world. As a result, we’re more caught up in the tension of their existence because we’re unsure how their small part of the larger story is going to play out.
Vinyl lacks that. Whatever the fate of American Century Records will turn out to be it has fuck all to do with hitching its star to David Bowie or Elvis. It’s a much better show when it’s playing with its fictional artists, people in whom viewers can invest some real emotion.
It’s fun to play around with history. But I think you have to have a solid idea of why you’re doing it and how your fictional characters are going to fit into that history. Are they swept along with the tide we all know or are they changing it into something entirely different? It’s a fine line and easy to wind up on the wrong side of it.