If there is one genre that has found a great medium in television, it is period drama. The format of long-stretched TV series is perfectly suited to historical dramatization that covers generations, sometimes centuries. If you enjoyed watching the classic historical mini series such as Roots, Centennial, North and South, Winds of War & War and Remembrance, you will enjoy the latest TV series as well. They boast with marvelous cinematography and spectacular, high-budget production design and setting that can compare to feature films.
In terms of history, most of these TV shows are fictional stories based on facts. Some more so than others. There are people who will get all up in arms about how it really was, while others will take it at face value. But if watching an entertaining historical saga triggers your interest in true history and propels you to do some research, that will do.
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Although interesting, for most of us Roman history has always seemed too distant to relate to. HBO’s ambitious, high budget tv series Rome has managed to breathe life into this fascinating time period. It is an epic show, not lacking in the grandeur of sets and the display of period costumes. Love and betrayal, power and lust, friendship and politics, are all well plotted into the main story that follows the friendship of two Roman soldiers.
The show realistically depicts life in the raw, as it was in ancient Rome, with primitive superstitions, brutal violence, and rampant sexual activity. As it was quite expensive to make, Rome had a short, two-year lifespan.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Similar to Rome, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is a highly graphic and visceral period drama that leaves nothing to imagination. Love, battle, adultery, orgy, torture, rape, murder… It is all there in all its misery and glory. The show is a realistic dramatization of the day to day life in the hierarchies of Rome circa 70 BC. The main storyline follows the life of a man betrayed by the Romans, forced into slavery and reborn as a gladiator.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Released as a prequel, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena comes in 6 episodes that fill in back stories mentioned in Blood & Sand and give a bigger picture. The action, nudity, violence and offensive language is all there as in the first season.
Deadwood tells the true story of the west – fictionalized of course, but not romanticized or beautified by any standards. There is quite a bit of sex, nudity and violence, and the profanity is extreme. However, all of that only adds to the “ambiance” of the setting. Legendary characters Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are mixed in with the fictional characters who are rich and complex as the dialogue they lead. The sets and the costuming are simply incredible.
The history of the Wild West is explored in all its ruthless grime, severed Indian heads and random murder, bloody fistfights, unabashed and ugly racism, opium addicts, beaten-up whores and children trampled to death by horses – and in the midst of all this, moments of transcending beauty, compassion, and kindness. So many broad issues in a small Deadwood setting, with conflicted characters and detailed scenery make this a great show. Even if you are not a fan of cowboy movies, give it a go.
Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers is a true and inspiring story of Easy company from basic training through the end of the war, as told by those who were there on the front lines. It is not a story about war, but men. It shows the reality of war in which you never quite know what will happen next – who’s going to be wounded and sent back home, promoted, demoted or transferred, separated from their unit, or killed. The subtext is on the war within individual values and the loss of meaningful humanity.
Created by Steven Spielberg and played by an excellent cast, Band of Brothers is filled with potent, poetic imagery. The wonderful cinematography replaces slow-motion effects with high shutter speeds in adrenaline-charged sequences – without bothering to stress formal compositions within the frame. It conveys a vivid “you are there” sense of immediacy. As far as war drama goes, this is the best.
If you still haven’t watched The Tudors, you have a lot to look forward to. The show was loved by the audiences and the critics, as it covered pretty much everything from great acting, to provoking dialogues, to impressive colorful costumes and expensive production design. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is remarkable, bringing strength and credibility to the complex character of King Henry VIII. The story follows his life, painting a vivid picture of the man who married multiple times and had various lovers, who was known for despicable political actions that were not favored by many, and who single handedly managed to bring down the Roman Catholic Church.
You gets a linear view of events through different character’s eyes including the clergy as well as the monarchy. While none of the characters are particularly likable, least of all King Henry himself, the actors playing them are very charismatic. The political and sexual intrigue and the way Henry’s decisions effect everyone around him is what makes this show highly addictive.
Created by Neil Jordan, and further backed up with excellent casting of Jeremy Irons in the lead role, The Borgias is a feast to the eyes, much like a feature film, with impressive production design setting, rich costumes, period details, battle scenes, photography, music… Every audio-visual aspect has been accounted for with utmost perfection.
The Borgias are painted as the first organized crime family, who are no strangers to corruption, manipulation, and brutality that are synonymous with criminal enterprise. The plot is intriguing and introduces the family members with intelligent dialogue and intertwining story lines. The pace of the action is fast – but it makes time occasionally for some rather graphic sensual scenes and gross and bloody fighting. A great watch!
This mini series covers the life of John Adams, and the first 50 years of the United States. The story of American independence and the portrayal of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and all major players is presented vividly. Adams is played brilliantly by Giamatti, showing a deeply principled, law-abiding, passionate, brilliant man. The plot is intelligent and diverse, with mesmerizing scenes of his relationship with Abigail, and the love story that is one of the greatest in American history.
The Pillars of the Earth
Set in 12th century England, this action/adventure/romantic epic drama is based on Ken Follet’s classic novel. The plot revolves around the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It shows church politics and corruption; greed and power in the fight over the throne of England; family, friendship, betrayal and passion.
Wonderful cinematography, The Pillars of the Earth features elaborate cast, expensive set production, fancy costumes. As with most modern TV shows, the script is full of nudity, sex, violent scenes, decapitation, incest, and dirty language, but it all makes for a powerful insight into history.
The Kennedys ranks with the very best miniseries. Casting is great and the acting is superb. The series’ portrayal of the Kennedy dynasty gives a lot of space to Joe and Rose Kennedy, offering more insight into the family background. It provides a rather objective view at the political lives of the Kennedy family, without being either propaganda or a smear job.
From the early election years to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, to finally Kennedy’s resolve during the Cuban missile crisis, the series will keep you on the edge of your seats. Anyone who is interested in politics or the Kennedys will want to see this miniseries.