By Guest Contributor Monique Jones
Fox’s latest high-concept sci-fi drama, Hieroglyph, is as fascinating as it is potentially problematic.
The show begins airing early 2015 with a doozy of a storyline: Master thief Ambrose is taken from prison by Pharaoh Shai Kanakht to find the dangerous and magical Book of Thresholds. The story also incorporates sexual and political scandals thanks to the machinations of Pharaoh Shai’s half-sister Nefertari Kanakht; his advisor, Magister Bek; Ambrose’s lost love and second-rate priestess, Peshet; Vocifer, a peddler and old friend of Ambrose’s; the Pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Rawser and Lotus Tenry, a palace concubine and spy for the enemy kingdom.
Oh, and there are also vampires, for some reason.
Everything (except for the vampires) sounds great, but there are some pros and cons with this show. Let’s go down the list.
Hieroglyph has diversity: Fox has been on a roll with its new slate of shows. As viewers have seen during last year’s fall-winter television season, Fox has recommitted itself to airing shows with highly diverse casts. In fact, Fox Broadcasting COO Joe Earley said to company heads and media insiders that diversity is the newest and best way to make money. “Not only are you going to have more chances of a show being made here, more chances of a show being a success on TV, more chances of making it into syndication, more chances of a show selling globally and making you millions of dollars, but you are going to bring more viewers to our air and keep us in business,” he said.
To be honest, it’s a wonder television execs hadn’t figured this out already. Yes, the cultural and social ramifications are great—audiences can see shows with better representation of America’s melting pot. But if we’re strictly talking money, getting more people to watch your show (aka buying a product that’s for sale), the more money you’ll make, and the best way to get more eyes on your product — which leads to more sales— is to appeal to a large swath of America’s population. Television execs have now seen that this model works, which is why you have networks with new lineups boasting even more diversity than last year.
Hieroglyph actually represents ancient Egyptians as non-white people: Hieroglyph is one of the few forms of entertainment that have actually shown ancient Egyptians as non-whites. Ancient Egyptians have been depicted as white actors and actresses for decades, with 1934’s Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert and 1963’s Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor being the biggest examples.
One can argue that casting white actors and actresses as Egyptians is an absurd way to once again devalue and claim Africa’s history by taking one of the most powerful and influential kingdoms and whitewash it. Just take a look at the controversy that surrounded the upcoming film Gods of Egypt. The whole cast — including Sigourney Weaver, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gerard Butler — is white. It was only after the large-scale petition launched by Thorne Studios that the film added Chadwick Boseman to the cast. The idea that only white skin can equal power is reflected in the constant whitewashing of history, and at the very least, Hieroglyph adds a bit of a barrier to the proceedings.
However, this leads to one of the biggest negatives about the show.
Hieroglyph cast people of color, but didn’t cast any Egyptians: Wouldn’t it make sense for a show about ancient Egypt to cast actual Egyptians? It would seem like the old-school Hollywood idea of minorities being interchangeable is still in play. This idea is how Sabu, ’40s movie star and the first Indian actor to make it big in Hollywood, gets cast as an indigenous Brazilian in 1947’s The End of the River. Even more recent was the casting of Janina Gavankar, who is of Indian descent, as Luna Garza on True Blood, a character of Mexican and Navajo descent.
Unfortunately, Hieroglyph is playing right into the established way of Hollywood, even while it’s trying to change how Hollywood views minorities. Reece Ritchie, who plays Pharaoh Shai (as you’ll read about below) is of Indian descent (by way of South Africa) and English descent. Condola Rashad, who plays Nefertari, is African-American. Hal Ozsan, who plays Magister Bek, is of Turkish Cypriot descent. There are other members of the cast who are minorities, but aren’t Egyptian. The common denominator they share, though, is that they’re beige in skin tone. The skin tone is what was most important in casting, not the actual descent of the actors and actresses chosen.
On a shallower note, the other worrisome thing floating around this show is the premise itself.
Hieroglyph could be too high-concept to work: I know what Fox is hoping for. They desperately want Hieroglyph to be the next Sleepy Hollow. It has everything that Sleepy Hollow has: a highly diverse cast with minorities in lead roles, a plot that is so big it could succeed or fail hard, sorcery and magical objects, and British accents. (As an aside: Why are we doing British accents in a show about ancient Egypt? Why not do Egyptian accents?)
When I watched commercials for Sleepy Hollow, I was heavily concerned. I loved the idea, but I was scared it would fail simply for being stupid. But when I saw the pilot, I, like almost everyone else in America, fell in love with the show and I’m now a devout “sleepyhead.”
Now, the same thing could happen to Hieroglyph; it could be the hugest success since Sleepy Hollow and then Fox would create a sci-fi Monday lineup with both shows. Sleepy Hollow itself is probably the reason Fox decided to invest in Hieroglyph. But it could also be a tremendous flop. Enter Almost Human as a cautionary tale.
Almost Human was a show I loved just as much as Sleepy Hollow. Yes, the show didn’t know if it wanted to be a hardcore futuristic cop drama or a buddy-cop comedy. Yes, some plot points never got picked up ever again, such as The Wall and Anna, Danica and Dr. Nigel Vaughn’s whereabouts, etc. But if it didn’t have anything else, it had the awesome and admittedly cute bromance between android cop Dorian and his human partner Det. John Kennex. Seeing them bond over cheesy ’80s Lionel Richie songs and android anatomy was awesome and was a great way to set the mood for Sleepy Hollow, which aired right after.
Like Sleepy Hollow, it had a diverse cast, a unique take on the police procedural and a high-concept, humongous plot that could fail hard if it couldn’t find an audience. Unfortunately, even though it secured a loyal few, it didn’t secure the big blockbuster audiences Sleepy Hollow did. So now the fun buddy-cop show is gone.
I’m sure Fox is well aware that when they gamble big with these high-concept shows, they’re gambling with all their cards on the table; they could lose big-time. Could Hieroglyph go the same route as Almost Human? It most certainly could. But it could also be a huge success. But it’s difficult to say when the show is not just about a magical ancient Egypt, but also includes fantastical monsters like vampires.
Despite the casting issue and the issue of the ‘go big or go home’-style plot, Hieroglyph is still one of the more interesting entries into the 2014-2015 television season. So let’s meet who will be vying to entertain us this winter.
Ambrose (Max Brown)
Max Brown, an English actor, has made his name across the pond in shows like Grange Hill as Danny Harston, Hollyoaks as Kristian Hargreaves, and Foyle’s War as Adam Wainwright. But he’s also been in a few projects well-known in America, like Showtime’s The Tudors as Edward Seymour and The CW’s Beauty and the Beast as Dr. Evan Marks.
Shai Kanakht (Reece Ritchie)
Ritchie is barely known in America, but keen eyes might remember him from 10,000 BC as Moha, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as Bis, and The Lovely Bones as Ray Singh. If you played the video game Dragon Age II, you might have heard him before; his voice is peppered all through the game.
Nefertari Kanakht (Condola Rashad)
Rashad was born into television royalty: his mother is Clair Huxtable herself, Phylicia Rashad, and her father is former football star/sportscaster Ahmad Rashad. Condola is mostly known for her stage acting; her most notable role has been as Juliet in the revival of Romeo and Juliet, playing opposite Orlando Bloom as Romeo. But if you are a fan of Lifetime, you probably saw her as Shelby in the all-black, Queen Latifah-produced reboot of Steel Magnolias. Fans of the cancelled NBC show Smash might also remember her as Cynthia Moran, the girlfriend to scheming social climber Ellis.
Magister Bek (Hal Ozsan)
Ozsan is a Turkish-English actor, but unlike fellow Englishman Brown, Ozsan has become a staple in many American productions, like Dawson’s Creek (which aired on CW when it was called The WB),TNT’s Major Crimes, Fox’s Bones, USA’s White Collar as well as True Blood. There is one show he and Brown have in common—they have both appeared on Beauty and the Beast.
Peshet (Caroline Ford)
Ford is relatively unknown to most viewers; her credits on IMDB don’t even fill a whole page. But if you’re a fan of horror and slasher films, you might have recognized her as Elaine in Lake Placid: The Final Chapter and as Holloway in Asylum.
Vocifer (John Rhys-Davies)
The British mainstay has been in almost everything you can imagine; his resume dates back to 1964. But there are two film franchises that really gave him a huge fanbase; his roles as Sallah in the Indiana Jones trilogy and Gimli in the Lord of the Rings series. He’s also lent his voice to various cartoons, including Animaniacs, House of Mouse and The Pirates of Dark Water.
Rawser (Antony Bunsee)
Bunsee, also a British actor, is best known overseas for playing Tariq in EastEnders and Govinda Roy in Hollyoaks. Sex and the City fans might also remember him as Beydoun from the film Sex and the City 2. His role in Hieroglyph will be his biggest introduction to American audiences.
Lotus Tenry (Kelsey Chow)
Having interviewed her for Amazing Spider-Man, I can tell you that Kelsey Chow is really personable and fun to talk to. But apart from my bragging, Chow’s star is currently on the rise, what with her appearances in many family-friendly and teen-friendly shows and films like Run, ABC Family’s Baby Daddy, Disney XD’s Pair of Kings and The WB/CW’s One Tree Hill. Chow’s role in Hieroglyph might be her most sexually-charged role yet.
What do you think about this show? Will you be watching? (I certainly will be.) Discuss amongst yourselves in the comments section.