Unleashing the Top 20 Must-Watch Historical TV Shows
The popularity of historical TV shows has been immense since the inception of television, regardless of whether they depict the distant past or events from the 20th century. These period dramas and comedies offer a glimpse into the triumphs, tragedies, and the toil of our ancestors, often adding meticulous attention to detail and historical accuracy. Some of these shows are inspired by real-life figures, while others revolve around fictional characters. On most occasions, these productions are filled with tension and intrigue, often highly dramatized to enthrall the audience. Even though historians may complain about the deviations from the facts, most viewers appreciate the effort to bring greater depth to the plot.
Creating the perfect balance between storytelling and cultural authenticity is often difficult for showrunners and networks, unlike fantasy-themed shows, which have greater creative freedom. Nevertheless, masterful productions like Vikings, which has amassed a massive following, and other extravagant costume dramas like Bridgerton, successively prove that historical recreations come in all forms and sizes. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of historical renditions with greater fidelity, delivering to ardent viewers their cravings for epic sagas.
20 Knightfall (2017-2019)
Knightfall began airing on the History Channel in 2017 and is one of the most outstanding historical TV shows set in the 14th century. It follows the tale of the Knights Templar, with their leader, Landry du Lauzon (Tom Cullen), an intrepid fighter who struggles to find inspiration to lead them through their failures. Eventually, when rumors are heard that the Holy Grail exists, du Lauzon regains his vigor. Although not a mainstream success, this suspenseful drama did include a surprise guest appearance by Mark Hamill from Star Wars, heightening its geek credentials.
Streaming now on Prime Video, the series focuses on Jesus Christ while the disciples and other characters take center stage. Viewers witness the healing of Mary Magdalene, the apostles' calling, and other miracles performed by Jesus through the eyes of Nicodemus, Peter, Matthew, and other side characters. This distinctive viewpoint of the New Testament events provides a refreshingly inspiring perspective on the life of Jesus and marks it as one of the compelling historical TV shows based on Biblical events.
The Terror is a chilling horror anthology series that blends the unsettling presence of the supernatural with real-life tragedies. The show skillfully bridges these disparate genres together, with its first season recounting the story of John Franklin's doomed expedition's quest to discover the elusive Northwest Passage in the arctic, while in the second season, a group of Japanese prisoners is haunted by a malevolent spirit during their confinement in an American internment camp during World War II. While the historical accuracy may not satisfy strict scholars, for fans of macabre stories, The Terror is irresistible.
Experience the epic tale of Spartacus, Starz's groundbreaking TV series that captivated audiences from 2010 to 2013. This action-packed show from the early 2010s follows the life of Spartacus, a highly skilled Thracian gladiator who rebelled against Roman rule, gaining legendary status for his courageous quest for freedom in the early 70s BCE. If you loved films like 300 or Gladiator and wanted more excitement, Spartacus is perfect for you. With three seasons under its belt, this miniseries won two Saturn Awards and continues to beckon viewers.
Get transported to the late 18th century in England with PBS's Masterpiece line of shows' Poldark. Based on the novel series of the same name, Poldark premiered in 2015 with Aidan Turner playing the lead role of Ross Poldark. The series follows Poldark's story after his return from fighting in the American Revolution, only to find his life in shambles. His father is dead, his property has been sold, and the love of his life has moved on. This undiscovered gem was well-received in Britain, earning it a BAFTA Award.
Hulu's The Great is a historical comedy-drama that takes a hilarious stab at historical accuracy. The show is a tongue-in-cheek account of Russia's Catherine the Great, following her rise to power and her plot to murder her husband, Peter III. This is an anti-historical historical show with over-the-top, laugh-out-loud characters. With Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult delivering knockout performances, The Great has enjoyed critical acclaim and even picked up Emmy and Golden Globe nominations across its three seasons.
Set in the late 9th century, The Last Kingdom is an enthralling historical series based on The Saxon Stories novels by Bernard Cornwell. Although it began airing on BBC America in 2015, Netflix has produced episodes since acquiring the rights. The show follows Uhtred, who was raised by Vikings but is of Saxon descent. As Uhtred navigates the complex web of alliances, he must choose where his loyalty lies. This popular TV show delivers adventure, drama, and everything in between.
Now available for streaming on Showtime, The Tudors aired from 2007 until 2010 and spans over four seasons. It's a must-watch for those who enjoy a scandalous, dramatic depiction of King Henry VIII's early reign, during which he had a total of six wives, many of whom met unfortunate ends. The series follows King Henry VIII's rule and his relationships, particularly with Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Although the series received numerous Emmy nominations, it didn't win any awards.
Streaming now on Showtime, an exceptional portrayal of Rodrigo de Borgia/Pope Alexander VI is the centerpiece of the series, The Borgias, which delves into the notorious Borgia family's rise to power and infamy in Renaissance-era Italy. Jeremy Irons's incredible and wicked portrayal of the scandalous pontiff alone is worth watching, but the narrative is full of greed, intimidation, treachery, and sacrilegious scandal. Despite being one of the most historically inaccurate TV shows, The Borgias' true crime and political thriller elements are compelling and helped it win three Emmy Awards over three seasons.
Set in the 1950s and 1960s, Call the Midwife is a period drama by the BBC that follows a young midwife, Jenny, who works at London's Nonnatus House. Based on Jennifer Worth's novels, the 11-season series is just as entertaining as many popular historical shows that are set much further back in time. Despite never winning an Emmy, the show has received awards from other organizations.
Rivaling Firefly as one of the best shows that were cancelled too early, Deadwood aired on HBO from 2004 to 2006 and follows the titular town after its establishment in the 1870s. Deadwood was a lawless haven for all sorts of vagrants and villains and served as the backdrop for larger-than-life stories about some of the Old West's most prominent figures, such as Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane. The series, led by Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane, won one Golden Globe and an Emmy, and thirteen years after its cancellation, Deadwood: The Movie continued the story.
Boardwalk Empire, spanning from 2010 to 2014 and set in Atlantic City during Prohibition, follows the unscrupulous politician Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, and his entanglement with the seedy underworld of the city. This crime drama chronicles Nucky's ascent to power as a political kingpin in the city from the 1920s to early 1930s and was loosely based on real-life politician Enoch L. Johnson. The series earned three Emmys and two Golden Globes Awards and is available for streaming now on Prime Video.
Released in 2017, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam "Midge" Maisel, a young Jewish-American housewife in 1958 New York City who pursues a career in stand-up comedy. The magnificent Rachel Brosnahan portrays Midge, and with her father played by Tony Shalhoub and her manager portrayed by Alex Borstein, the cast excels in their respective roles. The series has won five Emmys and remains one of the most superb historical TV shows in history. The fifth and final season will come out in 2023.
One of the most prominent British television dramas, Downton Abbey debuted in 2010 on ITV in the UK and PBS in the US. The show, set in the fictional Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey, portrays the members of the Crawley family and their household servants, featuring an outstanding performance by Dame Maggie Smith. While bringing in several historical events, the series mostly focuses on the characters' day-to-day struggles, making it a beloved global phenomenon. The show earned six seasons and a movie, and aside from its first season, it averaged over ten million viewers, Forbes reports.
Bridgerton might not have won as many awards as other deserving historical TV shows, but it brought something new to the genre — a period drama that feels modern. The series, based on Julia Quinn's novels, was a hit thanks to its viral popularity. Its first season broke the record for the most viewed series in Netflix history with 625 million viewers, according to Deadline. The second season surpassed this record. Though Bridgerton hasn't won many awards, it has redefined the genre for a new generation of viewers seeking a fresh take on historical dramas.
HBO Max features the hit historical drama Rome, originally airing in 2005. Rome follows the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Although the show focuses on the wealthy and powerful in Rome, the true highlight is the story of two common soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, who witness and shape many historic events. Despite only having two seasons, Rome was still a smash hit, earning seven Emmy Awards.
For those who enjoyed Hamilton, exploring another founding father, John Adams, on HBO's popular historical drama is a must-see. This show covers America's first 50 years and President Adams' involvement in the country's foundation. Though it lacks musical numbers, it is packed with political intrigue, drama, and notable American figures. Paul Giamatti shines in his portrayal of John Adams, and the show was a massive success, winning 14 Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes.
The Crown is among the most well-known historical series, and for good reason. First airing on Netflix in 2016, Claire Foy stars as a young Queen Elizabeth II. The series begins in the 1940s, following her life as a young member of the royal family. The show makes use of recasting as the characters age, bringing political rivalries and personal relationships to the forefront as it captures the 20th century's way of life. The Crown has been a huge success, garnering 10 Emmy Awards and seven Golden Globes.
Vikings, a historical drama that premiered on the History Channel in 2013, made its final season debut in 2020, and its success is continuing with Netflix's sequel series, Vikings: Valhalla. Based on Norse myths and legends, the show follows Ragnar Lothbrok, a renowned Viking warrior and descendant of Odin himself, on his journey from a humble farmer to a legendary warrior. The series later expands to focus on his family and children, making for an epic journey through the pages of history, rivaling Game of Thrones in scope.
Set during World War II and created by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers follows the lives of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division. The series tracks the soldiers' journey from basic training to Japan's surrender in 1945, including historic events such as the invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the capture of Eagle's Nest through their eyes. This TV miniseries broke the mold and won seven Emmys and a Golden Globe. Even over two decades later, Band of Brothers continues to be an example of quality and craftsmanship other shows, no matter the genre or topic, aspire to.
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