…Then we’d probably be friends. But really, as if the already existing magic of television wasn’t enough, historical TV shows (in my extremely biased opinion) propel you even further into the realm of amazement and drama. Furthermore, you can appease your guilty conscience by reminding yourself that it is–in some form–educational. The shows I’ve lined up for you below have it all; from heart-wrenching romance to the most decisive battles, I’m sure you’ll count at least one of these as a new favorite.
We’re in the time of truly great historical television, and I’m here to show you the way…
Turn: Washington’s Spies: The American Revolution is one of my absolute favorite periods of history. It seems I can never quite learn enough about the battles, soldiers, plotters, and traitors of the thirteen colonies. Such a teeny, tiny collection of land and colonists, yet what they dared to accomplish was the original and ultimate “F-U” to the British motherland. AMC’s series Turn: Washington’s Spies follows the history of America’s first spy ring. All the big characters are there: Washington (duh), Benedict Arnold, Robert Townsend, Peggy Shippen, plus some others you may not have heard of before, like Major John Andre(or “Hottie with the Side Braid” as I like to call him) and Abraham Woodhull (the original task master of American espionage.) While the series is not 100% historically accurate, it does a wonderful job of painting a picture of revolutionary America and the various personalities that helped to build the nation. The first season is riveting, but by the third season the plot drops off a bit. Let’s hope the fourth and final season (supposedly airing in mid-2017) reestablishes a strong, enticing narrative.
Outlander: If you haven’t jumped on this train yet, by all means jump already. Leap. Buy a kilt and search for some bagpipes because, by George (or in this case, Bonnie Prince Charlie), this series is truly remarkable. The costuming is unbeatable, the pace of the story is always smooth and intriguing, and the actors carry the intensity and dialogue with such ease and truth it will indubitably touch your Scottish-loving soul. You’ll root for Jamie and Claire from the second she sets his dislocated shoulder in the very first episode. In preparation, read up on your Scottish/English history a bit. It’s not necessary, but will make it all seem much more real. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that Outlander was first a series of books by the genius Diana Gabaldon, so if you are a read-before-watch kind of human, pick up the books first. In any event, Scottish history and culture is rich with tradition and modernity, and Outlander serves as an addictive introduction to this time period. (Reading suggestion: How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It, by Arthur Herman).
Gran Hotel: Not only did this show directly inspire me to pick up the Spanish language again, but it also is the only series that actually kept me up until the wee hours of the morning. I could not turn it off. Who is the gold knife killer? Why doesn’t Alicia see that Don Diego is a completely psychopathic murderer? Is Julio, in fact, the most lovable male character in recent memory? Where the hell is Cantaloa on this earth and can I live out the rest of my days upon its seaside cliffs? (It was the mother of all bummers for me when I learned Cantaloa is a fictional location–but places just as beautiful do exist in Northern Spain!) Anyways, take my word for it and watch this show. It may be difficult to get a hold of these days, however, as Netflix removed the program from its site in late 2016. Let us all collectively pray together that this early 20th century drama returns to us, and Julio’s perfect mane of hair along with it. Por Dios.
The Last Kingdom: I wasn’t sold on this series at first, but after a few episodes I was practically mumbling “Uhtred, son of Uhtred” in my sleep. It’s England before it was England! What’s more to love? This series feels a bit Game of Thrones-y without the dragons and burning children at the stake bits (though who knows what Season 2 might bring). I’m sure artistic license is taken in relaying the actual history of the time, but let’s be honest, isn’t it always? Nonetheless, The Last Kingdom draws you in and establishes characters you both love and hate and secretly root for. Uhtred is no perfect man, but he is strong and brave as hell, and I have a feeling this series could be a major contender as it gains popularity and momentum in the coming Season 2. Check out the books as well, written by Bernard Cornwell.
Mercy Street: Thank you, PBS, for this wonderful gift that is Mercy Street. It’s not quite Lost Cause-esque, but it’s not entirely Union-driven either in regards to the storytelling. Mercy Street does a fabulous job of portraying the tensions among both Unionists and Confederates in the American War. The sides often fought within their own circles as life and culture and politics and morality hung in the balance. The Civil War will likely always be a conundrum to lovers of American history in general. How do we tell its story? There were winners of the war, yes, but in a way didn’t everyone lose as well? I appreciate that Mercy Street tackles the fine lines and gray area that exist even in the heroes and personalities we’ve been taught to revere. The medical aspect of the show is also commendable. Clearly there is a strong historical team working to make this series as accurate as one can hope. Josh Radnor carries the cast as Dr. Foster beautifully, and his costars remarkably shoulder their weight.
Z: The Beginning of Everything: The jury is still out on this series, but thus far I find it a splendid sort of easy-watch about two of my favorite literary figures of all time. I won’t lie to you, I hold F. Scott Fitzgerald to a near god-like level in my heart and mind, so perhaps not all will care for he and Zelda’s story as much as I do. The series is, however, visually appealing, quick in pace, and full of allusions to Fitzgerald’s beautiful prose. Sometimes I found bits of the dialogue and direction of the episodes a bit contrived, but not so much so that I ever wanted to stop watching. Give it a whirl, episodes are only about 30 minutes each.
War & Peace (2016 miniseries): I have the general impression that War & Peace is on of those books that nearly everyone has heard of and has some vague idea of it being “just another depressing piece of Russian literature. That dang Tolstoy.” BUT. I beseech you to reconsider. It’s incredible. It is not overrated, it is purely exquisite and I felt like each word of the story was reeling me in by the eyeballs until I dreamt in Napoleonic Wars and established unhealthy ties to the characters. For God’s sake Natasha–what are you doing?! This miniseries based on the Tolstoy masterpiece is captivating and altogether well-done. I love Lily James. I want to marry James Norton. And even Paul Dano and his tiny glasses entirely won me over by the final installment. Make some tea and hunker down in the coziest spot on your couch because once you start this one, you won’t stop until it’s done. And then withdrawal will ensue. (Or maybe that was just in my case, let me know).
The Crown: I feel like there is no need for me to even set this one up or inflate it in any manner. The reviews and awards speak for themselves. I applaud Netflix for picking up such a perfectly executed show. This one is binge-worthy in every sense. So just watch it. Watch it and think of monarchs and corgis and appreciate the fact that we will (hopefully) have seasons more of The Crown to enjoy in the future.