Loudly have pop culture critics announced the inauguration of the Golden Age of Television. I'm a little leery of the idea of declaring any age a golden one while we're still living it, but there's certainly no doubt that there has been an explosion in scripted television. This has been accompanied by a significant increase in budgets for television shows, which has meant that genres that previously had proved prohibitively expensive or suffered under the effects of cutting corners can benefit from lavish productions, including entirely new, rather than rented costumes, location shooting, CGI, and many other luxuries. These increased budgets have been a particular boon for period productions, which have never looked better.
I'm always on the lookout for good period dramas and up until a few years ago found television's offerings rather uninspiring with the exception of British literary miniseries. Lately, I am discovering a veritable bounty of well-scripted, well-acted period pieces, with gorgeous costumes, spectacular sets, and lavish designs. Here are six highly bingeable period dramas:
The Bletchley Circle (2012-2014, 2 seasons)
The premise of this show excited me to no end: four women come together after the war years which they spent code-breaking at Bletchley Park to solve crimes. The first season is some of the best television I've ever seen, comparable to the first season of True Detective in terms of its intense suspense, its complex characters, and the depth with which existential questions are examined. Unfortunately, the second season is not as good; the first half was fine, though not great, and the second half was frankly disappointing. Though not overtly a series about feminism, the focus on brilliant women, who, no matter what their personal situation, crave the outlet of intellectually demanding work makes for a compelling response to the intense misogyny seemingly endemic to similar crime dramas. The main cast - Anna Maxwell Martin, Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle, and Julie Graham - give subtle, powerful performances and the show resists, almost until the end, focusing on romantic subplots to the detriment of the mystery-solving.
The Bletchley Circle is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Borgias (2011-2013, 3 seasons)
Jeremy Irons is seductively slimy and fantastically Janus-faced as the power-hungry, corrupt Borgia pope, while François Arnaud gives a muscular, alternately brash and wounded performance as his eldest son, destined for the church but longing for a more heroic career, and Holliday Granger evolves from a girl sweet as sugar to a woman as poisonous as arsenic as the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. The show, a passion project written and directed by Neil Jordan, takes significant liberties with history, relying as heavily on legend as on the written record, but only a history stickler would care. The Borgias is about politics and political power, first and foremost, and its treatment of the subject dwarfs similar fare such as The Tudors, pitting historical figures, from Savonarola (Steven Berkoff) to Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee), against the Borgias and each other. Much like Game of Thrones, the show dares to titillate while it horrifies, glorify while it disillusions, awaken a lust for power as it demonstrates with gory directness the costs of such lust. The theme music by Trevor Morris merits a mention; it thrums with fervor, borrowing as much from liturgical music as it does from the pulsing beats of contemporary cinematic scoring.
The Borgias is currently streaming on Netflix.
The Crimson Field (2014, 1 season)
Sadly, only one season of this engrossing drama about nurses, surgeons, and wounded soldiers in a field hospital during World War I was produced. Though like most period dramas, its plots are melodramatic in terms of their structure and emotional tenor, screenwriter Sarah Phelps has crafted complicated characters that pull the viewer in with an urgency born of the desperate situations in which they find themselves and sustained with unexpected moments of revelation, bitterness, tenderness, and sacrifice. Rather than shocking cliffhangers and sudden discoveries without any basis in what has come before, Phelps weaves taut webs of suspense through the entangled relationships and power struggles that are the meat of the show. The focus is primarily on the nurses, played by Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kerry Fox, Marianne Oldham, and Alice St. Clair, and as such it joins a small but growing subgenre of war dramas about women's experiences.
The Crimson Field is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
The Paradise (2012-2013, 2 seasons)
One of my very favorite television shows ever, this show stands out both for its gorgeous production values and its unusual setting: a department store at the very dawn of the consumerist era of industrial capitalism. It would have been pointless to try to produce The Paradise before the advent of extravagant budgeting, for much of the pleasure in watching it is found in being dazzled by the gorgeous wares on display in the store, the silks and velvets, ribbons, pearls, fine china and cut-glass atomizers, fans and hats. Though the show became progressively more engrossed in romantic relationships, the best episodes focus on the frustrations and successes of running the business, with the store's manager (Emun Elliot) and his favorite shopgirl (Joanna Vanderham), who has a genius for salesmanship concocting ever more delectable offerings. Better written than Downton Abbey, The Paradise is a puff pastry of a television show. Read a full review.
The Paradise is currently streaming on Netflix.
Road to Avonlea (1990-1996, 7 seasons)
This Canadian television show created by Kevin Sullivan, who also wrote and produced Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, is based on L. M. Montgomery's The Story Girl and The Chronicles of Avonlea, as well as many of her short stories. Wholesome in the best sense, warm-hearted, and very, very funny, Road to Avonlea essentially narrates the trials and tribulations of the denizens of a small town on Prince Edward Island at the turn of the last century and it creates a world so real, so inviting, that one can't help wanting to live there. It's rare for the writer of an adaptation to capture so perfectly the voice and feeling of another writer's stories and characters and yet the many contributors to the series, most of them unsung (female) screenwriters, mastered the remarkable ability of seemingly channeling Montgomery from beyond the grave. Both Rachel Lynde (Patricia Hamilton) and Marilla Cuthbert (Colleen Dewhurst), from the Anne films, make appearances.
Road to Avonlea is not currently streaming, though it is available on DVD.
A Young Doctor's Notebook (2012-2013, 2 seasons)
Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm star in this lightning-quick series about a brilliant, conceited, and morphine-addicted doctor assigned to a miserable, snowy hospital outpost during the Russian Revolution. Based on writings by Mikhail Bulgakov and written by a team of British writers with a gift for irreverence, the series has a very black sense of humor indeed, glumly reveling in the miseries of surgery, and its increasing focus on the costs of addiction brings it to a darkly ambiguous conclusion. The two stars are both at the top of their game, delivering performances that alternate between a brazen ridiculousness and a heartbreaking poignancy; they are supported by Rosie Cavaliero, Adam Godley, and Vicki Pepperdine. This show isn't for everyone, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita or Gogol's "The Nose." Stinging, bitterly funny, gleefully gross, A Young Doctor's Notebook is unquestionably unique.
A Young Doctor's Notebook is currently streaming on Netflix.
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