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A Story Askew - World History As Told By Period Dramas

By Edited Jun 14, 2016 1 1

Unlike young adult fiction adaptations, zombie apocalypses, and action movies featuring gruff men with troubled pasts, period drama is vast genre, but rarely an oversaturated one. However, as every history teacher chides their flock come term paper time, the media adaptations never make up for the real written deal. As history is written by the victors, some of the written word is likely wrong, but period dramas are re-written once more to be made for the audience. That said, period dramas do get a few things right, even if it is just the gist of the story, and, if nothing else, they bring an era to life in living color to pique the interest of another generation.

To most, the term 'period drama' means 17th - 18th century England, but the term really does include everything outside of the present decade. This list covers television shows (no movies) ranging from antiquity and runs up to the 1900s. As the era of World Wars is one of the few eras of history that has been done to death in television, they will not be included to keep this list at a manageable length.

Warning: Some spoilers may be abound, but most are nothing that isn't already thoroughly spoiled by a history book or within the first few scenes of the first episode of a series.

spartacus blood and sand
Credit: Starz Entertainment

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Rome - 72 - 71 BC

The story of Spartacus has been a ripe subject of movies, but the story has never been told quite like this. The first season of Spartacus is made with the gory, slow motion, moving through still set pieces style that was a hit when done in 300. However, because this was made a full four years after the 300 hype was over, it didn't go over well. Thankfully, as the show goes on in later seasons, it gets a little less ridiculous and tells a fairly enjoyable Spartacus story.

Over-the-top storytelling aside, Spartacus: Blood and Sand does embrace the overall gist of the gladiator-turn-revolutionary from beginning to end. There is some historical debate as to what the Thracian-born Spartacus did before becoming a gladiator, but Spartacus: Blood and Sand depicts him as a member of the Roman auxiliary who deserts, a popular theory historically. Throughout the show it embraces the overall story of Spartacus being captured, sold into slavery at a gladiatorial school in Capua, and later rebelling against his master then escaping with his fellow gladiators to lead the slave revolt against Rome that would be known as the Third Servile War while just filling in some of the finer details with fiction for a fleshed out story.

Spartacus: Compl Series Bd+uv [Blu-ray]
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Spartacus truly begins to shine in its final season when the slave army is at its peak. Because Spartacus: Blood and Sand has three seasons (including one season that is just back story of the gladiatorial school before Spartacus arrived), it allows for a good portion of the battles to be covered in detail whereas the movies just show the outmaneuvering of the Roman army at Vesuvius before glossing over the rest to the end.
HBO Rome
Credit: HBO

Rome

Rome - 49 BC

The simply named Rome television show covers the final days of the Roman Republic as told primarily by soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who find themselves entwined in historical events. Although, interestingly enough, both fictional characters were mentioned briefly in Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, the part they play in events is fictional. While Rome is riddled with historical inaccuracies, producers decided to aim for authenticity over accuracy. As co-creator Bruno Heller has said: "We try to balance between what people expect from previous portrayals and a naturalistic approach. This series is much more about how the psychology of the characters affects history than simply following the history as we know it."[1]

Rome: Season 1
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The plot of Rome showcases events following the Gallic Wars as Julius Caesar combats a civil war against the conservative factions within the Roman Senate and details the rise of the Roman Empire including the power struggles of Octavian, a man later known as Rome's first Emperor Augustus. While Julius Caesar, Octavian, Mark Antony, and other powerful citizens of Rome are shown, the story also shows how the average citizen lives and influences events in chaotic Rome by putting focus Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo as main characters.
Vikings
Credit: The History Channel

Vikings

Norway - 793 AD

Vikings was, and continues to be, the History Channel's answer to Game of Thrones, even going so far as to air competitively with HBO's behemoth. While its History Channel home may seem like Vikings is primed to be the most historically accurate period drama of all period dramas, unfortunately with all the Pawn Stars and Ancient Aliens, the "History" Channel has lost its way of late. However, while many historians point out little inaccuracies such as the Viking government being presented as an autocracy rather than an early democracy or the architecture of Uppsala, the majority agree that it does get a number of things right. Showrunner Michael Hirst says it best when confronted with the nit-picking, "I especially had to take liberties with Vikings because no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages."[2] After all, it's not called the Dark Ages because the sun went out, right?

The story of Vikings follows the legendary exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok and his family as told through the 13th century sagas Ragnars saga Loðbrókar and Ragnarssona þáttr. As the Norse held with oral tradition for a long while, these sagas were recorded around 400 years after the events took place. There has been some debate as to if Ragnar was a real person, although those depicted as his children all went on to become famous historical figures. The show focuses on Ragnar's raiding and exploration in Anglo-Saxon England and post-Holy Roman Empire France starting from the historical first raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793.

Vikings: Season 1
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As the show goes on, it begins to touch on both the growing legend of Ragnar's children as well as the increasing permeation of Christianity in the otherwise pagan Scandinavia. What makes Vikings stand out other than its natural depiction of the often aggrandized Viking Age, is that it is not just another show the glorifies sex and violence, often showing the repercussion of both rather than just using it for the shock value.
Marco Polo
Credit: Netflix

Marco Polo

China - 1271 AD

While Marco Polo was not the first European in Asia, it is thanks to him that we know so much about the area at the time as he had the good sense to write his travels down. Unfortunately, calling the show Marco Polo is a bit of a misnomer. While this historically famous explorer is ostensibly put in the main character slot, it is the characters and setting that surround him which are the real stars. In reality, the show would have been better titled "Kublai Khan: Khan of Khans" as that is where the real interest in the Marco Polo lies.

Historically, Marco Polo travelled Asia for 24 years with his father and uncle, returning to Venice a very rich man. However, in the show, his father and uncle essentially leave Marco Polo in the court of Kublai Khan in order to continue trading along the Silk Road. From there, Marco Polo participates and observes in the courtly intrigue that comes with a Mongol-ruled China, which makes sense from the part he played in documenting the era's history, but it makes him a rather negligible character at times. Although Marco Polo has its flaws, including somewhat stereotypical martial arts fights and one very strange orgy, it can be praised for not whitewashing any of its many Asian or Middle Eastern characters as many a Western-made media has done before.

Isabel
Credit: La 1

Isabel

Spain - 1461 AD

Spain was crucial to Medieval Europe, eventually growing to be one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world. However, for some strange reason, they are rarely the focus of any period drama. They are often mentioned in the below period dramas like Reign, The Tudors, and The Borgia as they become a more powerful nation and every so often a Spanish character would appear (mostly to be evil and create drama, for some reason), but Isabel is one of the few shows that depicts the kingdoms that would become Spain.

Isabel follows the reign of Isabella I, Queen of Castile from her difficult rise to the throne and marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon, a union that hailed the Golden Age of Spain, following her story all the way to her death and the fates of many of this famous couple's children, including Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife. Subsequent seasons would also cover other major events during her reign including the journey of Christopher Columbus, which the Spanish crown would fund, as well as pushing the last remnants of the long-fractured Umayyad caliphate from Granada and the Iberian Peninsula. Unsurprisingly, Isabel was a hit in Spain, but remains a majorly undiscovered gem throughout the rest of Europe and North America. Regardless, it provides a fairly authentic and accurate look into an often ignored great empire of the Middle Ages.

the white queen
Credit: BBC One

The White Queen

England - 1464 AD

England in the Middle Ages is ripe material for period dramas, but for all those set amongst the time of Henry VIII, there is surprisingly little about one of England's most fascinating wars - The War of the Roses.

The White Queen is a short period drama based on Phillipa Gregory's historical novel series The Cousins' War. The story of The White Queen starts nine years into this long and bloody civil war in 1464 where the House of York and the House of Lancaster fight over the rightful king of England. Instead of following the men of this era, The White Queen focuses on the intrigue of three women that wrote history from behind the scenes - Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort, and Anne Neville. These women manipulate the husbands and consorts in their lives in order to gain wealth and position through them. It is a unique idea to focus on the women of the time period, but it leaves something to be desired in terms of action.

 Like with any good period drama, there has been a number of nitpicking at The White Queen. Real inaccuracies such as costumes and the portrayal of most characters as either good or evil have been spotted, but some have even gone so far to flaw the series for the characters having too nice of teeth. However, one of the major failings of The White Queen is being too short. It starts nearer to the middle of the war and compresses years into minutes, something that, while necessary, doesn't do this fascinating time period much justice.

The White Queen (The Cousins' War)
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Because nothing beats a good historical book. Nothing!
The Borgia
Credit: HBO

The Borgias

Italy - 1492 AD

Vatican politics has never been as interesting as they are in The Borgias. All the intrigue, blood, and sex that good Catholics don't want to believe ever went on in the seat of the Pope are shown in brilliant detail amidst a round of moves and counter-moves.

The beginning of the first seasons shows the Borgia family's rise to power through the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI at the papal conclave, a feat achieved through extensive bribery within the College of Cardinals. Throughout the rest of the series, it depicts the family's desperate struggles to maintain power with enemies around every corner including Alexander VI's primary rival Cardinal Della Rovere, who travels throughout Italy and France in order to gather an army to depose the Pope.

The Borgias: The Complete Series Pack
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Although not a long series, The Borgias takes ample liberties with the actual history in order to make the series more dramatic. A number of characters were created solely for the purpose of creating more drama while others have their fates amply re-written. However, as the deadly politics were so well played out during the show's time, there are very few vocal nitpickers.
the tudors
Credit: HBO

The Tudors

England - 1509 AD

Although named after the Tudor dynasty, The Tudors follow the family's most notorious member - King Henry VIII. The series begins during the first few years of Henry VIII's reign with him already married and sired his eldest daughter Mary with Catherine of Aragon. However, while it starts a few years in, the series follows the chaotic chain of events that transpired throughout his reign all the way to Henry VIII's death. His relations with France and Scotland, split with the Catholic Church, and all six of his wives are given their fair share of focus throughout the series, but one of the major complaints is that events were compacted down even though The Tudors received four seasons to completely tell the story.

Tudors: The Complete Series
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Like The Borgias, The Tudors is another victim of "for the sake of good TV" mentality that so often accompanies period dramas. Showrunner Michael Hirst, who was just as snarky about The Tudors as he is about Vikings, put it this way: "Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... And we wanted people to watch it." Unfortunately for fans of the era or Henry VIII, there is a lot to nitpick in The Tudors. It is not only a case of some characters being changed or created for drama, but some of the altered character fates dramatically affect the events of history which led to the show glossing over and changing major details in later seasons.
magnficient century
Credit: Star TV

Magnificent Century

Ottoman Empire (Turkey) - 1520 AD

The Ottoman Empire is history's forgotten empire, even though it lasted from the 14th century all the way through World War I as the world's last official empire. However, Magnificent Century tries to shine the light on the Ottoman Empire by depicting the pinnacle of its rule under the helm of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

The plot of Magnificent Century follows Suleiman from the very day his father dies and he becomes Sultan at the age of 26 to his death after a 46-year reign. With the help of his friend and advisor Paragali Ibrahim, Suleiman becomes famous for his personal combat skills and leadership in both the East and the West. He is famous for the revision of Ottoman law and consolidating his power in the Mediterranean through countless successful military campaigns, all set among a backdrop of tensions between Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. However, the man aside, what truly shines in Magnificent Century is the intrigue and drama amongst Suleiman's harem, particularly once his favor grows for one of the women among many. The intrigue among the women puts political period pieces like The Borgia to shame.

Interestingly enough, Magnificent Century is lauded for being historically accurate in most respects; however, it caused some outrage in Turkey for depicting such a historic Sultan in such an "indecent and hedonistic" way.[3]

Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire
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Turkish history, it is more interesting then you might think.
reign
Credit: CW

Reign

France - 1557 AD

Reign focuses around the early years of Mary, Queen of Scots during her time in the French court. Unfortunately, while Mary, Queen of Scots was one of history's best female badasses, Reign was the product of CW looking to make another hit like Vampire Diaries. Thus Reign became less about courtly intrigues or political strife and more about hunks and hotties philandering with each other, which is amply flaunted in the very first episode. Reign isn't a show that viewers should go into expecting some serious history, but those "Oh, I know that historical figure!" moments are very rewarding because of its less history-focused drama.

Few nice things have every been said about the historical content of Reign, but it does succeed, in some respects, as a coming-of-age story for the young ruler as she faces the grim consequences of her good intentions when ruling over two kingdoms. Unfortunately, all that takes a backseat to Mary, Queen of Scots falling in love with any Tom, Dick, or Harry that walks into the royal palace even if their ill-intentions are worn right on their sleeves suggesting that she (or any woman watching) can't rule a country without someone to make smoochie faces with. There is also that little controversy of every character being anything but Scottish or French in origin, but as long as they are pretty, right CW? Mary, Queen of Scots deserves so much better, but Reign works as a good guilty pleasure show.

The Other Queen
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A more interesting story of Mary, Queen of Scots. Also, it's written by the same author of the book that The White Queen series is based on.
black sails
Credit: Starz

Black Sails

Caribbean - 1715 AD

Before The Walking Dead and zombies, media was all about Pirates of the Caribbean and pirates. However, Black Sails came long after the pirate hype faded, allowing enough time for interest to return in what was once an oversaturated market. However, what makes Black Sails unique in the way that it combines both literature and history together.

Black Sails follow Captain Flint approximately two decades before his role in the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. The feared Captain Flint roams the seas during the Golden Age of Piracy around the waters of New Providence Island in the West Indies looking for the Urca de Lima, a Spanish treasure galleon. However, Captain Flint isn't the only pirate in search of this particular treasure; throughout the series this fictional pirate encounters historical pirates including Anne Bonny, Benjamin Hornigold, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Ned Low, and Blackbeard.

Black Sails: Season 1
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Though not a historical plot, the addition of historical characters and the accurate setting still make this a particularly enjoyable period drama as few other pieces of pirate media depict the roguish way of life as gritty as it likely was.
outlander
Credit: Starz

Outlander

Scotland - 1743 AD

Scotland has had a bit of a bad history with period dramas. They are most famous for Braveheart, which is consistently criticized for its historical inaccuracies. Unlike Braveheart, Outlander can be commended for, at very least, using tartan kilts in the proper time period. However, history buffs will have to see the forest for the trees with this show as audiences will have to sit through a time-traveling romance as the primary plot. That said, Scotland in its last throes of freedom is an interesting backdrop, and Outlander does a fine job of showing the hard, gritty life of normal people instead of having a strong focus on the aristocracy. As Outlander was also based on a book series by Diana Gabaldon, she did a good portion of research on the time period for the show's creators so while the time travelling makes it a bit science fiction, it still keeps strong roots in history.

While shows like Reign are romance stories in the worst way, Outlander is at least a romance story in the best of ways. The main character Claire begins as a nurse during World War II who, after the war ends, travels to Scotland to reconnect with her husband as he explores his ancestry through an English Captain stationed near Iverness, Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellion. However, after touching some mystical standing stones, she is transported back to 1743 and gets picked up by a band of Scottish rebels. Although she eventually falls in love with one of them, Claire remains a strong female character set amidst a society of overbearing men, creating an interesting dynamic. Eventually, as time traveller Claire comes to care for her Scottish rogue more, she seeks to stop the Battle of Culloden which is markedly the end of the Jacobite Rebellion and the hopes for the rightful heir of Scotland, Charles Stuart, to take the throne.

Outlander
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Is the book better than the show? It is actually debatable. What with all the time switching back and forth, the book can be a bit hard to follow at times.
Turn
Credit: AMC

Turn: Washington's Spies

America - 1776 AD

Turn is based around the book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, a history of the Culper Ring. However, the show takes great liberties with both the book and the historical spy ring. Regardless, Turn details the transformation of four childhood friends as they go from farmers to spies that would help shape the creation of a nation. The story begins in October 1776 shortly after the British recapture New York City for the crown and scatter George Washington's forces to the wilderness. The main characters navigate the intricacies of spy politics with many of them having to toe the fine line between keeping up the guise of being a loyalist to their peers and families while tending to their rebel duties.

Turn: Washington's Spies Ssn 1
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Unfortunately, like the other period dramas, the story is switched up quite a bit to make for better modern television. One of the biggest places that Turn takes a wrong turn is the relationship between Abraham Woodhull and his fellow spy Anna Strong. While in the show Woodhull marries and continues an adulterous relationship with Strong, historically Anna Strong was long married to a relative of Woodhull's as well as nearly a decade his senior while Woodhull himself remained unmarried throughout the Revolutionary War.
banished
Credit: BBC

Banished

Australia - 1788 AD

Banished is a period drama that takes a stab at a fresh new territory of history for period dramas - the colonization of Australia by British convicts. However, by "takes a stab at," I mean it tries and doesn't exactly do so well. Created by the esteemed British writer Jimmy McGovern, audiences had high hopes for the quality of Banished as it chronicled all the hardships that early Australians had to endure while carving out a home in a country inhabited already by indigenous people and countless deadly hazards. Unfortunately, the show only focused on a small handful of hazards and not the right ones.

Banished is all about the challenges of only 100 Royal Navy marines guards living amongst 1,000 prisoners as they found the first penal colony in Botany Bay, New South Wales in 1788. Mostly, showrunners focused on creating a bodice-ripper by making ample mention of men outnumbering women five to one. While those certainly would have been real problems in the first penal colonies, Banished utterly glosses over the constant threat of harassment from Aboriginal people. There is brief mention of "the natives" in passing, but there are no shadows rustling in the bush, no foot prints outside their camp, and not one single appearance of an Aboriginal on screen. While Banished has a chance to dig into some fertile new period drama ground, it lets a lot of good opportunities go to waste.

deadwood
Credit: HBO

Deadwood

America - 1870s AD

Deadwood is considered by many to be the best period drama of all time, if not the best television show of all time. Rarely has a show ever received almost universal praise from reviewers, but after sitting down for even a few minutes of an episode, it is easy to see why. Deadwood is expertly written with surprisingly deep themes and smart dialogue delivered with a healthy dose of profanity that makes it accessible for a large audience.

Deadwood: The Complete Series
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Deadwood takes places in Deadwood, South Dakota during the 1870s, following the city as it transforms from a camp to a proper town, exploring how civilization comes together from chaos as a major theme. While doing so, Deadwood also features a cast of historical characters such as Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen, Wild Bill Hickok, Sol Star, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp who have historical moments in the town shown from actual diaries and newspapers found from the era. However, there are a number of fictional characters and historical characters taking part in fictional events, but because the show does such an exemplary job of blending fiction with history it is an easy thing to look past even for the serious stickler.
Downton Abbey
Credit: BBC

Downton Abbey

England - 1900s AD

As easily one of the most popular period dramas in the past few years, it is only fitting that Downton Abbey, a show that covers England at the turn of a new century, makes the final entry on this journey through history as imagined by the media.

Written by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey follows the lives of both the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in their post-Edwardian era Yorkshire country estate. Throughout all the snark and servitude, the show follows the household as it deals with the ramifications of historical events at the time such as the sinking of the RMS Titanic, World War I, the pandemic of Spanish Influenza, and the rise of the Irish Free State. Downton Abbey smartly shows how such events shake the British social hierarchy as well as the daily life of both the gloriously rich and mundanely common. What is most stunning about the series is that the aristocrats don't fall into the usual tropes of snobbery that quickly make most aristocratic characters look like parodies of the society. Instead, they are surprising in how approachable the characters are while still having an air of class.

Masterpiece: Downton Abbey Seasons 1, 2, 3, & 4
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That being said, Fellowes put great detail into the authenticity of Downton Abbey, but it has been criticized for its anti-Irish and anti-Catholic views, both of which would not have been unexpected in turn-of-the-century Protestant England. The fact that Fellowes would be able to paint such characteristic into a society so that viewers would think they are unconscious hate shows the care and detail that goes into the creation of this series.
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Comments

Oct 15, 2015 8:54am
HLesley
Wow. Great article. I hadn't heard of a lot of these series, but am now seriously interested in them.
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Bibliography

  1. "Rome News." HBO. 8/01/2007. 14/10/2015 <Web >
  2. Tom Gilbert "Vikings Come Ashore In A New Light." The New York Times. 8/04/2013. 14/10/2015 <Web >
  3. Suzanne Fowler "Magnificent Century Divides Turkish Viewers Over Life of Suleiman." The Guardian. 20/03/2011. 14/10/2015 <Web >

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