The Counterfactual Colonies: ABC's "Thirteen" to Premier on Network TV

I admit I was excited to read the other day that ABC plans on premiering a new alternate history TV series called Thirteen.  If the reports are accurate, it is set in a world in which the American Revolution failed in 1776 and contemporary “Americans” -- more than two hundred and thirty years later -- are still battling their British imperial overlords for independence.

The obvious precedent for such a series – besides Robert Sobel’s brilliant mock history textbook For Want of a Nail (1973) -- is Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfus’s novel, The Two Georges (1995).  That text was basically a detective thriller set against the backdrop of the 1776 revolution failing and the 13 colonies remaining in a North American Union. 

One of the best features of the novel, as with other top notch alternate history narratives, such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962), is that its plot was not saturated with too many counterfactual pyrotechnics.  I always find it annoying when the authors of alternate history texts bombard readers with endless points of divergence from the real historical record and skimp on the actual needs of plot, character development, and the like.  Many alternate histories are just glorified outlines of counterfactual chronicles with a few stock characters thrown in as delivery systems.  The best narratives divulge their points of divergence at a leisurely pace and allow readers to actively detect them.

If the producers of Thirteen are smart, they will pace the series slowly, alerting viewers to the distinct features of the alternate world in subtle rather than overt fashion.   Doing so will allow viewers the chance to deduce and decode what must have happened without being hit over the head with altered facts.  Being able to glimpse a stray currency note or postage stamp bearing the face of an unusual historical figure is much more effective than actors bellowing out the facts of the alternate world in stentorian fashion.

It will also be interesting to see whether Thirteen bothers to make any commentary on present day political events.  The Two Georges was an obvious critique of the U. S. in the early 1990s (the L. A. riots, the militia movement, Branch Davidian mess, etc.), which was made clear by the novel’s suggestion that the country might have been better off (especially in race relations between whites and blacks) if the revolution had failed.  (Had it failed Britain would have retained control and abolished slavery in 1830, thereby sparing the U. S. the Civil War, the KKK, Jim Crow, etc.)

How will Thirteen portray American rebels fighting against Britain?   Will the rebels be Lone Ranger- style heroes on white steeds?  Or flawed characters with compromised morals and methods?  Will viewers assume that the rebels are meant to stand in for rebels elsewhere in the world?  In Syria?  Elsewhere in the Middle East?  By the same token, what will be the significance of the British?  Will they British be black-clad fascists a la Mel Gibson’s film, The Patriot (2000)?   Or more benign oppressors?  Will the British be seen as symbolic stand-ins for the U. S. and its present-day imperialistic misadventures?  Will the failure of 1776 be seen as a commentary on present-day American geopolitical weakness?  Will conservatives be irate that ABC is positing the possibility that the birth of the U. S. was not inevitable?    

Clearly the series offers many opportunities for present-day political commentary.  Just think about what the producers might do with the concept of a Tea Party....

Will ABC jump at the chance or chicken out? Hopefully, viewers will not be disappointed and seek to tar and feather any network executives.