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Cancelling Hieroglyph: Is 2014 a Turning Point for TV’s Handling of Race?

With a rise in interest in sweeping historical dramas filled with intrigue, betrayal, amazing frocks, and sensuality, it’s not surprising to see almost every US network vying to produce some version of the costume drama for its viewers — and to see networks casting further afield for more grand ambitions of setting, scope, and history. When Fox announced Hieroglyph, a series about a thief plucked from prison to serve the Pharaoh, it seemed like a particularly outstanding and innovative take on the costume drama, a programme that would plunge into an era of history that hasn’t been explored very much on television. Ancient Egypt has a rich, fascinating, and complex history with plenty of real-world drama to build on.

Except for one rather glaring problem: The show’s cast was almost exclusively white. As a casual glance at modern Egyptians will reveal, this is a rather unhistorical decision — and anyone who needs further convincing can look at ample historical documents describing life in Egypt, including depictions of Ancient Egyptians. They were not white people of Anglo-Saxon descent.

Fox made some interesting choices with this series. Under entertainment chairman Kevin Reilly, the network was trying to move towards a slightly different method of series development, and this programme was a bit of a pilot project. The network greenlighted the show for development and production without putting it through its paces with a pilot, allowing the producers to use the funds normally dedicated to pilot production to creating additional episodes.

This unusual decision may have proved fatal for the series, which, it’s reported, was Reilly’s baby. When it was shown to an audience at May upfronts, response was mixed, and many viewers were skeptical. Now, rather abruptly, the show has been canceled before it even aired, which isn’t completely unheard of, but is rather unusual.

Fox claims that after seeing the show’s first episode and following work in the writer’s room, the show simply wasn’t coming together creatively. Rather than dedicating more resources to Hieroglyph, the network chose to move on with other projects. It’s notable that this happened almost as soon as Reilly had formally stepped down from his position (which is as-yet unfilled), almost as though the network was waiting to axe the show.

But is Fox telling the truth? Because the significant problem with Hieroglyph may not actually have been the creative direction the show was taken, but rather, the disastrous casting decisions made.

Earlier this year, ABC stumbled into controversy with Alice in Arabia when the script for the show’s pilot was leaked online and advocates promptly identified it as a pile of racist garbage. The show, revolving around a US teen ‘kidnapped’ by her family in Saudi Arabia, managed to hit a wide variety of racist tropes from white saviour complexes to Muslim terrorists. The Internet was not impressed, and within days, the network had decided to pull the show, acknowledging that it had made mistakes and would not be repeating them. It was an odd little moment for hashtag activism, a situation that actually led to a clear and concrete victory, and it worked to alert US networks to the fact that viewers wouldn’t remain passive.

A response of similar proportions met news about the Hieroglyph casting and pilot, with people furious about the explicit racism of the casting, which completely erased reality of life in Ancient Egypt. Is it possible that Fox used ‘creative problems’ as a cover for attempting to quietly terminate a series that it realized would get it into racial hot water? This would make Hieroglyph the second show in 2014 to be canceled over racial issues, illustrating that trenchant commentary can be a highly effective tool for forcing the cancellation of racist and wildly inappropriate media.

Meanwhile, NBC’s Sleepy Hollow continues to be a runaway hit in part because of its racial politics, and the inclusion of a diverse cast that actually acknowledges and interacts with its own diversity, instead of ignoring it. Race on Sleepy Hollow is a topic of discussion on Twitter whenever new episodes air, but it’s also the subject of panels at conferences, academic papers, and more, highlighting the fact that US audiences are hungry for programming with smart racial politics.

Could 2014 be a turning point for US networks in terms of learning about the handling of race? It’s not as though these issues are going to change overnight, but looking to the success of shows like Scandal and Sleepy Hollow should be providing some extremely useful lessons about race done well, and race that engages fans rather than enraging them. Meanwhile, Alice in Arabia and Hieroglyph represent costly mistakes that expended not just development dollars but audience goodwill.

Now, Fox is stuck with a variety of expensive Ancient Egyptian sets and costumes, which could be adapted for use in other programming or film, but some fans have a suggestion: Why not adapt the award-winning Dreamblood series by N.K. Jemisin to television? While not set precisely in Ancient Egypt, the fantasy series is based on a society and world very similar to Egypt, and it features all the intrigue, mystery, and eeriness one might want from a complex, sharp supernatural series, especially one designed for be Fox’s answer to Game of Thrones.

Moreover, the world is heavily populated by characters of colour, and it pushes at white, Western racial dynamics and notions about race, skin colour, and power. That might just make it a fascinating place for white viewers to explore, in addition to a potentially profoundly uncomfortable one.