The period genre doesn't cater to all TV viewers’ palettes. It’s enjoyed by a particular niche, the history-loving, escape-from-modernity crowd, and boy are these people huge fans. What’s the attraction of this genre, modernists ask? History is boring! Why dwell on a time that no longer exists? Well, that’s exactly the reason the fans are so drawn to period pieces. The shows are set during the time of their ancestors, a time they never experienced, but were always enthralled about. Watching period shows is a step back from reality, an escape into a whole different world.
However, you tend to wonder, how historically accurate are period shows? Truth be told, not all period shows are faithful to the actual events. Many shows tend to romanticize actual events to give that Hollywood flavor to it, because let’s face it, the Hollywood formula is meant to elicit more interest and emotions from the viewers to make them huge fans, not just passive watchers.
Even if all period shows consult historians to check the accuracy of real-life events, no one can be 100% sure that things are actually exact. More often than not, no one who’s involved in the production (including the historians) were actually born yet when the historical events happened. So critics should cut the people behind the show some slack. There’s effort in ensuring historical accuracy to the minutest detail and that effort is deserving of some recognition by the public, critics, and even award-giving bodies.
There are many period TV shows that proudly claim to be faithful to the time period. From the events to the words and phrases used, to the costumes, to the cutlery, these productions take great pains to ensure that all these details are as authentic as possible.
So in no particular order, here are 10 period TV shows from the last 15 years that are touted by many as historically accurate, criticisms notwithstanding.
10 Hatfields and McCoys
Re-telling a true story is a tricky and risky task. The pressure to be as faithful to the story as possible can make or break a bio pic. However, Hatfields and McCoys was able to do so with much aplomb. This three-part TV miniseries tells of real-life events dating back to the American civil war era, when a long-standing feud between two southern families led to many rifts, issues, and deaths. What starts out as a friendship, Hatfield (played by Kevin Costner) and McCoy (played by Bill Paxton) turn into bitter enemies over issues mainly stemming from disloyalty and betrayal. This leads to a war between the two families and the respective southern states they both hail from. The mini series received critical praise, many noting its accuracy to real-life events, and gave Kevin Costner an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Actor in a miniseries.
9 Hell on Wheels
Period dramas as westerns are almost always a come-on to the American audience. Hell on Wheels is loosely based on real-life events that happened in the American civil war era, during the building of the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860's. The events in the series focus on all the goings-on and people who were involved in the railroad, particularly the fictional lead character, Cullen Bohannon, who gets work in the railroad construction. He’s bent on traveling eastward to hunt down the Union soldier who murdered his wife and son. The series has been received well by critics and the public and is up for a fourth season this year.
8 Peaky Blinders
The British invasion of TV shows is always welcome with open arms by America. When it’s a British period piece, it piques even more interest. Many have said that Peaky Blinders is the British version of Boardwalk Empire. Set in post-World War I, the series is based on the real-life Peaky Blinders gang in Britain, a gang that used to sew sharp objects like blades into their caps, which they used as weapons when getting into misdemeanors. The series was well-received and is currently filming its second season.
7 John Adams
One can never go wrong with patriotic period pieces, especially those based on true to life events. If any period show can be called both epic and patriotic, it’s John Adams. Produced by HBO, this 7-part miniseries is about the political life and times of the second president of the United States and how he became one of the founding fathers of the country. Portrayed by Paul Giamatti, the series is arguably the most successful on television history, at least in terms of accolades. John Adams went on to win four Golden Globe awards and thirteen Emmy awards, topping any other miniseries in that respect.
Yet another period western drama makes it to the list of most accurate period TV shows. Deadwood is about the way Deadwood, in South Dakota, came to be in the 1870's, starting as a mere campsite and growing into a full town. The characters aren't necessarily actual persons that lived during the period, but they were most likely based on true persons. Despite its positive reviews on the storyline and detail to history, the show was canceled after just three seasons.
5 Boardwalk Empire
One of the most intriguing times to feature in an American period drama is the prohibition era in the 1920's and Boardwalk Empire’s plot revolves around exactly that time frame. Set during a violent time of guns, mobs, and excessive alcohol, Boardwalk Empire chronicles the inner workings of the mob scene in the eyes of corrupt Atlantic City politician Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi. The show has been lauded for its great storylines, attention to period detail, and the great performances of the actors. It will be airing its fifth and last season this year, wisely ending on a high note.
4 The Kennedys
Perhaps the most controversial TV show on this list is the biographical The Kennedys, which was originally supposed to air on The History Channel. It was pulled out of the line-up due to complaints about unflattering character portrayals and inaccuracy to the actual events. It later showed on other networks. The show depicts the lives of members of the family known as American royalty. Conspiracy theories have sprouted about the show being pulled out of History Channel, the most plausible of which is that the powers-that-be who have strong ties to the Kennedys influenced the network execs not to show the miniseries, or else.
3 Band of Brothers
With legends Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks at the helm, you can be sure to watch a show that will blow your mind. Such is the case of Band of Brothers, an HBO miniseries set in World War II. It focuses on a group of air force soldiers that make up “Easy” Company, a portion of a parachute infantry regiment. The ten-episode miniseries was warmly received and drew in millions of viewers week after week. It won a slew of Golden Globe and Emmy awards, the highest accolade being best miniseries. Most importantly, it’s been lauded as a beautiful tribute to the brave men who defended their country in the face of war.
2 Downton Abbey
With America’s continued fascination for all things British, it’s no surprise that one of the most popular (if not, the highest rated) period dramas to grace television in recent times is Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey. Set before, during, and after the First World War, the story revolves around the inhabitants of the house for which the TV series is named, from the Earl of Grantham and his family to the servants that live below stairs. Though the characters are fictional, their stories are set in the midst of actual events, like the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, and the steady decline of the aristocracy. However, the most fascinating aspect of the show is its attention to the littlest nuances, like dining table etiquette, master-servant interaction, and props and costumes truly faithful to the period.
1 Mad Men
The tumultuous sixties were some of the most exciting times in the last century. It’s also one of the best eras to set a period drama in. The costumes, the props, and the vintage sets all make for one extraordinary production. Throw in a great plot and you’ve got Mad Men to entertain you. Mad stands for Madison Avenue, the street which houses the advertising agency that the main character, Don Draper, works in. It deals with issues like extra marital affairs and women in the workforce, among many. Mad Men, which is currently on its last season, has been top dog since it started airing and it’s sure to end with a bang when the series draws to a close.