Period TV shows used to be dull snoozers that usually aired on PBS and were assigned as homework to watch. Boy have times changed! Led by hits like “Downton Abbey” and the History Channel’s “Vikings”, period piece shows are experiencing a renaissance.
Credit movie style production values, perfect casting, superb writing and a little tweaking of history for the resurgence. Who would have ever considered Jonathan Rhys Myers to play a sleek, sexy King Henry VIII for the series “The Tudors”? But that unconventional casting got a lot of people to watch the show and several networks started developing their own versions of historical dramas. We’re seeing the successful results these days.
Here is a short guide to four period tv shows worth watching and what histories they are based on.
“Downton Abbey” airs on PBS; news season starts January 4, 2015 at 9 p.m.: Now in it’s fifth season, the show follows the class and cultural changes affecting the British aristocratic Crawley family at the turn of the century and the servants who keep the estate they own running. It has been a Masterpiece Theatre juggernaut precisely because it’s not your grandma’s “Masterpiece Theatre“.
While it transports viewers to an elegant and more reserved time, the intrigue and drama that takes place among the aristocrats upstairs and the serving staff downstairs are downright juicy. Examples: a gay servant makes out with a visiting aristocrat in season one; in the same season a Turkish diplomat dies in the midst of forbidden passion with heiress Lady Mary. And let’s not begin to talk about how beloved romantic lead Matthew Crawley was killed off at the end of season 3 when he had just gotten married and his wife Lady had a baby!
Real History: “Downton Abbey” is based on some of the true stories of rich American women invading the U.K. to find titled husbands in the gilded age. Sir Julian Fellowes, who created the series and won an Oscar for the similar period film “Gosford Park”, mined stories from his family history and the book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” by The Countess of Carnavon for storylines and characters. (The diplomat expiring in a lady’s bed, true story!)
“Outlander” airs on Starz; new season starts in 2015 (Catch up with a marathon on December 25): Based on the very popular books by Diana Gabaldon, the series follows the adventures of the married, British World War II combat nurse Claire Randall who while on a second honeymoon, mysteriously travels back in time to war torn 1743 Scotland. To survive, she reluctantly aligns herself with the MacKenzie clan and their passionate warrior kinsman and hunk, Jamie Frasier. She soon finds herself married to and torn between two men – the one left behind in her own time and the man risking his life for her in this new one.
In interviews, Gabaldon, has called “Outlander” a time travel piece. But since it spends so much time in the 1940s and 1740s, it can easily fit the period piece category.
Real History: The story is set during the Jacobite revolution when Scotland tried to return the House of Stuart to the British throne. While the romantic fantasy is the centerpiece, gaelic expressions, Scottish customs and real rebellions are sprinkled throughout the series.
“Reign” airs on the CW Thursdays at 9 p.m.: What was Mary, Queen of Scots like when she was young and married to King Francis of France?: Fiesty, full of angst and stylish of course! The series re-imagines Queen Mary’s life as a young adult soap opera with a bit of supernatural mixed in courtesy of Nostradumus. Queen Mary is surrounded by equally fashionable and conflicted ladies in waiting who are more like sorority sisters than handmaids. She butts heads with King Francis’, overbearing mom Catherine de Medici. And speaking of Francis, he is a blond haired piece of eye candy.
Real History: Currently in season 2, “Reign” is focusing on Mary and Francis’ marital problems. In real life, it’s questionable whether they ever had any given that their marriage was so short-lived. King Francis died a year after they wed in 1559.
“Vikings” airs on The History Channel; new season starts Thursday, February 19 at 10 p.m.: Forget what you learned about village sacking vikings in school. The History Channel shares its side of the story through the eyes of Ragnar Lothbrook, a family man and farmer. Yes the words family man and farmer were just used to describe a viking. The strength of the series is that it’s really about a family guy – his first wife Lagertha, his kid Bjorn, his second wife Aslaug, his second set of kids, his best pal Floki, his brooding brother Rollo and his vision for a better career: conducting raids that take his fellow vikings to places where they had never pillaged before – England.
Michael Hirst, the man behind the Emmy winning “The Tudors” with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the movies “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” is also the screenwriter and producer. He has said that taking a simple approach to storytelling has led to the success of the show. It also doesn’t hurt to have a Lagertha stab her second husband in the eye or show a crucifixion!
Real History: Ragnar Lothbrook or Ragnar Lodbrok is mentioned in Norse poetry as a legendary ruler. The sagas describe him as the “scourge” of England and France because of the raids he allegedly led. Unfortunately historically accurate accounts of Ragnar are sketchy so it is unclear whether he even existed. But the literature names him as the father of real historical figures Bjorn Ironside (portrayed in the show) and Sigurd Snake Eyes among others and they were really thorns in the sides of England and France.