How the Period Piece Has Quietly Become One of Television’s Most Exciting Genres

TV Features
How the Period Piece Has Quietly Become One of Television’s Most Exciting Genres

When you say the words “period drama,” certain images naturally spring to mind: Beautiful costumes, fabulous hats, sweeping landscapes, and stories that feature rigid social structures from days gone by. There are brooding heroes and thoughtful heroines, soft-hearted servants, and sharp-tongued spinster relatives, often played by an older British Dame.

Some are based on famous English novels, while others recount the dramatic stories of real-life historical figures. (England’s messy Tudor period has provided seemingly endless fodder for this sort of series.) And, of course, there is romance: Lush, swoony love stories, often between two people whose relationship really shouldn’t work at all on paper, but blooms into something beautiful onscreen. Looking at you, North and South, Downton Abbey, and Pride and Prejudice, among dozens of others. 

For many people, period dramas are the epitome of escapism, a chance to immerse oneself in a comforting fantasy where everyone has beautiful gowns, the aristocratic excess on display is often tempered by a moral or religious obligation to the less fortunate, and no one acknowledges that most of these people didn’t have indoor plumbing. (It’s not an accident that even the grubbiest miners in Poldark are remarkably clean, is all I’m saying.) And of course, period dramas are one of the few genres whose focus is almost exclusively on stories about love and marriage, frequently delving into the sort of relationship-heavy content that a lot of so-called prestige television considers itself above.

But while there will always be an audience for those sorts of classic period stories—just look at the hype surrounding the forthcoming Downton Abbey sequel film—the genre as a whole has become more modern-facing than ever in recent years, taking important steps forward in terms of diversity and representation, all while wrestling with the sorts of complex societal issues viewers still see in the world around them today. 

Yes, there are still plenty of love stories to go around, but in terms of characters, there are far fewer Mary Crawleys living carefully crafted lives in their family’s gorgeously maintained ancestral pile, and many more Daphne Bridgertons deliberately stepping into their own power in ways this genre hasn’t often bothered depicting before. While it’s easy to credit Netflix’s Bridgerton with this sea change, thanks to its diverse cast and open interest in sex and female pleasure, the mega-popular romance series is hardly the only show out here changing the game in the period genre space. (Though its astonishing viewership numbers certainly aren’t hurting the cause.)

Modern period dramas—and by which, I mean series released over the past half decade, not those set in time periods nearer to our own—are more complicated than ever, featuring stories that often reflect concerns and experiences closer to our lives in the 21st century than they do Tudor England or the Regency period. For all that Bridgerton is ostensibly a show about the aristocratic marriage market—with the gorgeous dresses to match!—at its heart it’s a story about young women trying to figure out who they are and what they want from life in a world that doesn’t always look kindly on those that stray from the societally proscribed path. Young Eloise’s desire for independence and self-determination certainly wouldn’t feel out of place in an HBO Max comedy, and though eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne may ultimately long for a traditional lifestyle with a husband and children, the determination with which she refuses to become complicit in the ways that lifestyle oppresses other women is thoroughly modern. 

But Bridgerton is hardly the only show using a period setting to explore stories that reflect the experiences of its audience in unique and meaningful ways, no matter how many years may technically stretch between them. It’s not even the only one that’s popular right now. From Hulu’s The Great, which launches the second season of its wildly inaccurate depiction of Catherine the Great’s rise to power this week, to Apple TV+’s Dickinson (currently airing its third and final season) which dots its retelling of the life of the famous American poet with hilariously anachronistic flourishes, and PBS’s Sanditon, which shakes up Jane Austen by adding sex, heartbreak, and characters of color, these are not the period dramas you probably remember from Sunday nights on Masterpiece Theater. (Though, oddly enough, that is where Sanditon airs now. Or will again when it returns in 2022.)

In a television landscape stuffed full-to-bursting with predictable procedurals and paint-by-numbers mysteries, period dramas often feel like a breath of fresh air, offering entertaining yet frequently incisive stories that ask us, as viewers to rethink the way we consider our pasts and the role that history plays in our futures. And in doing so, neither The Great nor Dickinson are particularly bothered by things like historical accuracy, preferring to adhere to the spirit rather than the letter of the law when it comes to the women whose lives they’re reimagining. 

Dickinson may feel unique in that it peppers its period setting with 21st century flourishes, but at its heart it’s a story about growing up, and its use of the real Emily Dickinson’s poetry alongside hip hop needle drops and current slang makes it clear that many of the situations it depicts—whether problematic or delightful—are as ubiquitous and familiar now as they were in the 1800s.

For its part, The Great might fudge some of the specifics surrounding Catherine’s rise to the throne—like, say, her husband Peter still being alive long enough to critique her coup mechanics or the arrival of the mother, who died before the real Peter was ever crowned (although since the show cast Gillian Anderson in the part, I think we can all agree to allow that one). But despite taking repeated creative license with the facts, The Great still manages to wrestle with thorny questions of leadership, democracy, and the struggles of women in positions of power in a way that feels almost disturbingly timely and necessary. 

Look: It’s not an accident that the riskiest and boldest period dramas of this particular moment are stories about women, whether they take place in Tudor times or 18th century Russia. These period dramas are not just aimed at female viewers, but are specifically about a female experience that goes well beyond finding a handsome man with a sizeable estate to marry. They’re boldly feminist in ways that many (most?) period series before them haven’t bothered to care about, and embrace a wide range of stories.

From Harlots’ decidedly non-titillating exploration of the lives of sex workers in Georgian London—and the power dynamics that they must navigate in a world built for the safety and comfort of men—to the ways that Starz’s recent string of female-focused Tudor family dramas have returned sidelined historical women like Elizabeth of York (The White Princess) and Catherine of Aragon (The Spanish Princess) to the center of their own stories, the times they are indeed a-changing. And in all the best possible ways. What’s next for this genre that’s been around almost since the birth of television itself? I don’t know—but I can’t wait to find out. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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