Seven Awesome Historical TV Shows

David Coughlan

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What’s better than a show that teaches you something and entertains you all at once? Here’s a look at seven of the best.

Rome:

Courtesy of fogolin.mdb (Flickr)
Courtesy of fogolin.mdb (Flickr)

If Deadwood was the precursor to Justified, then surely Rome was the precursor to Game of Thrones. The show only lasted two seasons due to the excesses of the production budget but in those two years, HBO yet again showed us what a good historical drama should look like.

Starring Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, James Purefoy and many others, Rome took an epic, sweeping look at particular characters and events from the history of Ancient Rome. The show begins with the ascendancy of Julius Caesar and ends with the downfall of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. During this period, we get an authentic look at the lives of Ancient Romans.

Whilst people may squabble about the historical accuracy of events as they are depicted, one should remember that this was intended first and foremost as entertainment. Besides, if the show managed to get people interested in Ancient Rome, they could surely then undertake their own independent research to verify what was accurate should they so desire. Any show which allows us to put a human face on historical figures and to thus generate interest in the past and in what we might learn from it, can only be a good thing.

The scripting, acting and general production values of Rome are comparable to Game of Thrones. It’s a pity the show ended so soon but it accomplished a lot during its brief run. A lot of the mistakes made whilst filming Rome, which resulted in its inflated budget were taken into account during the production of Game of Thrones. So if you love GOT, be grateful to Rome. Without Rome to act as a trail blazer, GOT probably wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has.

Even though there are only two seasons to enjoy, Rome is still well worth your time. Interesting, compelling and highly enjoyable, there’s few shows before or since which can rival its quality.

Peaky Blinders

Courtesy of michelarouca (Flickr)
Courtesy of michelarouca (Flickr)

Starring Cillian Murphy as one Thomas Shelby, Peaky Blinders details the adventures of the extended Shelby family, the steel heart behind this notorious early 20th Century Birmingham gang.  Whilst history may indicate that the Blinders were actually at the height of their power towards the end of the 19th Century, the show still offers a fascinating glimpse into life in England after the First World War.

Many of the young men depicted in the series are veterans of the War and are scarred emotionally and physically by their experiences. The women, who in many cases ran the family business while their brothers and sons were away, are adjusting to having these traumatised, violent men return into their lives. We see a young Irish girl of Protestant background attempt to infiltrate the Blinders on behalf of a ruthless Inspector (brilliantly played by Sam Neill), IRA activity in the area (including a searing cameo from Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, better known as ‘Nidge’ from Love/Hate) and enough authentic feeling local environments to keep the historically curious amongst us content.

The tension mounts quickly as the series progresses and, whilst there are only 6 episodes in the first season, this is more than enough to develop a bond with the characters. Cillian Murphy is on top form as Shelby, a brutal but sympathetic sociopath with his own highly developed sense of familial ethics. The supporting cast is outstanding and the sets, makeup and script all lend to an authentic vibe.

Some have billed Peaky Blinders as Britain’s answer to Boardwalk Empire. The comparison makes sense as both shows depict young men struggling to come to terms in the ‘real world’ against the backdrop of their return from The Great War. In addition, the production values, superior casting and graphic violence are similar in both shows. There is something particularly accessible about Peaky Blinders, perhaps because it’s set in Birmingham rather than London and as such is showing us something we might not have seen before. The Irish influence plays its part too, no doubt.

All told, this is an excellent piece of historical fiction which offers a captivating glimpse into an oft forgotten period in British History. Everything about the show exudes class and if that isn’t enough to get you interested, then maybe the fact that Tom Hardy is joining the cast for Season 2 will help.

Boardwalk Empire

Courtesy of wei li graphic designer (Flickr)
Courtesy of wei li graphic designer (Flickr)

When Martin Scorsese announced his intention to make a HBO show based around the Prohibition era hijinks in Atlantic City, people were rightly excited. September will see the launch of the series’ fifth season and it’s fair to say, the excitement was justified.

Steve Buscemi stars as ‘Nucky’ Thompson, a fictional version of a real life character who ran Atlantic City for decades. In the show, Nucky is portrayed as a conflicted but highly ambitious man, with power and money as his key motivators. Buscemi is ably assisted by Michael Pitt, playing Jimmy Darmody, a traumatised young veteran of World War I, Jack Huston as Jimmy’s fellow veteran, Michael Shannon as conflicted lawman Nelson Van Alden and Stephen Graham as a young Al Capone. That’s four and there’s plenty more. The casting for the show is top, top notch and the production values and sets are in line with what we’ve come to expect from HBO.

Boardwalk Empire is another series which puts a real face to a historical period. Whilst events in the show are not always faithful to history, the authentic atmosphere is surely enough to whet the appetites of many an amateur historian.

In some ways reminiscent of an ‘old times’ take on The Sopranos, the show is a winner right from the off. One shouldn’t be surprised given the calibre of those involved. If anything, the only surprise might be that the show hasn’t proven even more popular than it has. Maybe that’s just a sign of how spoiled the modern viewer is.

Either way, if you haven’t already visited the Atlantic City Boardwalks, now is the time.

John Adams:

Courtesy of Humajasmine (Flickr)
Courtesy of Humajasmine (Flickr)

A powerhouse performance from Paul Giamatti, ably supported by Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, David Morse, Rufus Sewell and many others all combined with luscious sets and a hugely detailed script makes John Adams a must see historical mini-series.

The precise historical accuracy of the series may be debated amongst those with a deep knowledge of American History, but for those of us not so well versed, John Adams serves as a remarkable introduction to one of the lesser known founding fathers and to the War of Independence in general. There is so much ground covered during the 501 minute running time that one can’t help but emerge from watching the series with an increased knowledge and interest in the time period. Surely, there is no greater purpose for historical drama.

That said, John Adams is no boring history lesson. David Morse’s prosthetic nose aside, the series offers a human face to figures so often shrouded in the momentous natures of their own legacies. Here we see a flawed, uncertain George Washington, a duplicitous if primarily good hearted Thomas Jefferson and a wonderfully knowing Benjamin Franklin. No character feels one dimensional and events unfold before us as though we were reading from Adam’s own journal and from his own perspective.

A wonderful period drama, John Adams is amongst the finest mini-series of its type and once more shows Paul Giamatti as a true acting great.

Hatfields and Mccoys:

Courtesy of nam48years (Flickr)
Courtesy of nam48years (Flickr)

Starring Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton and Tom Berenger, Hatfield and McCoys is a three part mini-series made for the History Channel.

The real Hatfield and McCoy story is legendary in the United States, where after the Civil War; two feuding families on the Kentucky/West Virginia border began a feud which very nearly dragged the region into a second civil conflict.

The series does not adhere to every historical detail which is hardly surprising given the limited information available. These were not politicians but families and business people from a fairly remote and impoverished part of 19th Century America. What the show accomplishes is to feel authentic, which should always the first aim of any such show. On top of that the old school, excellent character driven acting of Costner, Paxton and Berenger makes Hatfields and McCoys easy to love.

There are parts of this series which have a real feel of the old-school western. Seeing Paxton and, in particular, Costner, back in the saddle is a joy. Both play their parts with the humanity, flawed dignity and charisma we have come to expect and as such, this series is elevated above so many others which have covered similar themes.

The local, family history detailed in the show is fascinating and the time period in general is equally so. The History Channel has also recently produced a series called Klondike, set against the Gold Rush and starring Game of Thrones Richard Madden (Robb Stark). This series is also well worth a look, in that, whilst not quite of the same standard as Hatfield and McCoys, it does offer a very useful glimpse into the challenges and extremes of frontier life little more than a century ago.

Deadwood:

Courtesy of Gary160974 (Flickr)
Courtesy of Gary160974 (Flickr)

Deadwood only lasted three seasons before HBO cancelled it. That fans are still clamouring for a spin-off movie will give you some idea of how good this show actually was.

A gritty, authentic look at the old west and at a town and people who really existed, Deadwood is surely amongst the best TV shows ever made. There are dozens of excellent performances in the three seasons but Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane stand out nonetheless.

Olyphant played the straight talking law-man, Seth Bullock, who wishes to start a business and raise a family in the lawless Deadwood. McShane plays Al Swearengen, owner of the local bar and brothel and all around villain. Their characters progress as the series goes on and we come to see both characters as people as opposed to just as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

By the time the show ended, McShane’s Swearengen had grown into one of the most complete and charismatic characters ever to grace our screens. His capacity to make the profane sound beautiful was uncanny and his general charisma made him impossible not to love.

This show demonstrated what a TV show could be in the modern age. None of the gimmicks of previous offerings were required here, just fine writing, fine acting, beautiful sets and authenticity.

If you haven’t seen Deadwood, you are really missing out.

If you have, then I suggest trying Justified to keep you entertained.

Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and we’ll finally get a spin-off movie someday soon.

Justified:

Courtesy TG4 (Flickr)
Courtesy TG4 (Flickr)

Ok. So it’s not exactly historical. But, if you have watched Deadwood and were sorry to see it end, Justified could just be the show for you. Starring Timothy Olyphant as Marshal Raylan Givens, the show could be said to transport the spirit of Deadwood to the modern age. Olyphant plays Raylan as an old-school U.S. Marshal who is transferred from Florida to his home state of Kentucky after a shooting.

Raylan is all old-west from his cowboy boots to his faded jeans, to his neck ties to his huge cattle-man’s hat. More than that, there’s his ‘Gary Cooper walk’, his laconic manner and his apparent love of shooting people. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast, most notably by Walton Goggins, playing the role of a local criminal from Raylan’s past, Boyd Crowder. Boyd grows to become as essential to the heart of the show as Raylan, a credit both to the writers and to Goggins himself, who throws himself into the role with great gusto.

From the very first episodes, you can see that Justified is a cut above most of the other shows on TV. The acting, cinematography, writing and locations are all top notch. It looks and feels like a movie or mini-series and this sense only grows as the show progresses.

Justified has gotten better season by season and is scheduled to end after Season 6 (Season 5 is currently being aired).

If you are stuck for something to watch now that Breaking Bad is finished or if you’re bored with the bland offerings clogging up your TV and still lamenting the loss of Deadwood, give Justified a try.

It’s funny, it’s relaxing and most of all, it’s excellent TV.

/ 13 Articles

David Coughlan