On this edition of Top Five Friday, I’ll be talking about my favorite historical dramas, but unlike my last discussion of period pieces, which was about movies, I’ll be talking about my favorite historical television shows. As much as I like period pieces in film, I like the TV shows better. Because they have more time than movies, there is more detail, more character, and a more immersive experience when it comes to a whole period of time.
So in no particular order, here are five of my favorite television historical dramas.
- The Tudors – Beginning some fifteen years into the reign of Henry VIII, this Showtime series told the story of Henry VIII’s six wives and their stories, as well as the religious and political events that changed history. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is alternately likeable and loathable as Henry as he shifts his attention from one woman to the next or attempts to work out a way to gain even more power for himself.
My favorite character by far, though, is Anne Boleyn, of course. She is portrayed perfectly by Natalie Dormer, with all the spark and cosmopolitan allure that the real Anne must have had to keep Henry devoted to her and her alone for the six years between their first meeting at their wedding in 1530. She, too, is easy to dislike at times, as the stress of being Queen starts affecting her reason, but in the end it is impossible not to weep for her and hate Henry.
This isn’t to say that the other Queens aren’t fascinating, but they really do stand in Anne’s shadow. Nevertheless, they are admirable in their portrayals. The rest of the cast is excellent, too, and you’ll see many faces you recognize from other shows, such as James Frain, Henry Cavil, and Peter O’Toole.
- The Borgias – This show begins with the death of Pope Innocent VIII in July 1492. Even before the man is dead, the scheming begins and in the end, the Spanish cardinal, Rodrigo Borgia is elected Pope Alexander VI thanks to the immense bribes delivered by his sons, Cesare and Juan. The new pope immediately has enemies, mostly his defeated foes in the College of Cardinals.
The scheming where his family is concerned is only heightened by Alexander’s new status as he marries his daughter to the cruel leader of a military family and hands the Papal Army to his son, Juan, a brash and arrogant young man who has no head for military strategy. Meanwhile, Cesare– an actual military genius– seems condemned to be confined to the Vatican, as Alexander quickly makes a Cardinal of him.
While much of the family drama is based on supposition or outright lies about the relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia, it is still a fascinating look at the era, especially if you like scheming politics. It is also interesting to see how women found ways to wield power in a world that treated them like children. There are few characters I do not like, or at the least, don’t find compelling, and seeing Cesare change from half-hearted bishop to brilliant general is chilling. I have to wonder what would have become of Italy– and perhaps all of Europe– if Cesare Borgia had not died relatively young.
The show ended prematurely, with a cliff-hanger at the end of its third episode, so if you want to give it a try, you might also find yourself a book about this fascinating, if corrupt family.
- Victoria – I have been fascinated by the Victorian Era since I was in high school, but as much as I know about Victoria’s England, I know relatively little about the queen herself. Fortunately, the iTV/PBS series is fairly accurate historically, and Jenna Coleman is perfectly cast as the charismatic young queen who must learn how to rule her country as much as herself. When she marries her husband, Prince Albert and bears their first child, she has a hard time figuring out how to assert herself as Queen, Wife, and Mother.
The politics of the time are not as intense as they are in The Tudors or The Borgias, though they are still there, as are many of the historical events that shaped Victoria’s early reign. I haven’t seen much of the second season, but I plan to watch the rest of this remarkable series soon.
- Ripper Street – I was watching Ripper Street with a friend when I made a sudden observation: “When the BBC wants to make a Western, they set it in Whitechapel”. It seems to hold up– Westerns are generally set in the late 1800s in a lawless region where an odd bunch of Good and Just men do battle against the forces of evil and chaos, while prostitutes, barmaids, and newsmen try to get ahead while working for and/or against the heroes and/or villains.
Ripper Street has all the hallmarks of a solid Western, just without the broad landscapes of the American West. Not surprising, given that it’s set in the Whitechapel district of London. In the months after the Ripper Murders, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew MacFadyen) seeks to bring order and justice to the mean streets of this forbidding and poverty-stricken area. He is joined by his fellow members of H-Division, but they have an uphill battle thanks to the plotting of a variety of criminals and would-be mob bosses.
The latest season recently dropped on Netflix, and I am looking forward to getting to it since the last season ended on a cliffhanger.
- Versailles – I am generally not all that interested in the late 1600s. It seems all too much like an era of royal decadence where kings and queens let their ‘Divine Right’ go even more to their heads and quashed their people even more, while their own abilities sank as centuries of intermarriage started to take its toll on the health and sanity of Europe’s grand royal courts.
But I’m a sucker for a well-produced historical drama, so I gave Versailles a try. Much to my delight, it is an amazing show about the reign of Louis XIV! The sets and costumes set the stage for some brilliant performances by George Blagden, Alexander Vlahos, and Elisa Lasowski, among others.
It plays out like a family drama, as there is an unending tension between Louis XIV and his brother Phillipe. Louis, being the king, constantly upstages his little brother who simply wants something of his own that his brother cannot claim. Because he often treats Philippe poorly, Louis risks having his brother turn on him.
And, of course, there is drama between Louis, his wife, and his mistresses. Because a great king simply cannot be content with one woman. Of course.
Politics play their part, too, and internal political forces seek to deprive Louis of his throne and external forces try to do the same.