Producers of historical dramas often have a difficult time striking a balance between accuracy and compelling storylines. If they stick too much to details, it becomes hard for us to follow; but if they sacrifice too many details for intriguing plots, those of us who are history buffs feel cheated.
Fortunately, in the past year cable TV has put several new dramas to the test, which offer exciting storylines and a range of historical accuracy, from bare-bones to scholarly attention to detail.
Here’re three of the top TV dramas for history and entertainment buffs.
1. “Vikings” – Sundays on The History Channel
When the History Channel released this show in March of 2013, it was their first scripted historical drama—a $40 million dollar gamble which quickly paid off. “Vikings” follows the warpath of legendary Viking warrior Ragnar Lodbrok from his humble beginnings to his mythological successes as a chieftain and marauder, carefully tying together loose ends from history with compelling plot lines. While this show has proven successful with viewers, scholars have noted inaccuracies in costuming, use of tools like the “sunstone,” or chronology; however, even in criticisms, the tide of academic response has been favorable. Monty Dobson, a Viking expert from Central Michigan University, excitedly points out to his peers that, “Like it or not, the series is having an impact on press coverage of Viking archaeology.” Excited about this surge in interest, he says, “Let’s use people’s curiosity to draw them into the conversation.” So despite some minor errors, “Vikings” does a great job of presenting a story that is both educational and entertaining.
I admit that when I first started watching “Vikings” I was sucked right into the story and my curiosity was set ablaze. Compelled by the account, fascinated by Viking religion and culture, and thrilled at the recognizable elements of history, I soon found myself looking hungrily for more information about Ragnar Lodbrok, the Nordic sagas, and other details of the story. If you’re as much as history buff as I am, you don’t want to miss “Vikings.”
2. “Black Sails” – Saturdays on Starz
This drama relives the early 1700s Golden Age of Piracy, following the story of historical pirate Captain Flint as he sails the Caribbean and crosses paths with other historical pirates. After debuting in January of this year, “Black Sails” has been met with praise for highlighting the harsh conditions endured by sailors, showing why many turned to piracy when given the chance. Instead of portraying them as blood-thirsty murderers, producers have hit our fascination with pirates from a more humanistic angle, getting us to wonder about the political and cultural forces at play.
I should note, however, that “Black Sails” is meant to be a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” which is based more on fiction than fact. Nevertheless, as with “Vikings,” the creators of this show give credit to those of us in the audience who want more than the expected action, sex, and intrigue of a typical Starz production; they explore new territory and allow us to explore motives and culture through fictionalized accounts of real pirates.
3. “Reign” – Thursdays on The CW
The last show on this list is the CW’s “Reign,” currently in its second season. This show is based on the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, and her relationship with Francis II of France. Scholarly reviews for this production have been much harsher than the other two shows, but then again the producers never intended it to be completely historically accurate. According to actress Anna Popplewell (who plays lady-in-waiting, Lola) the show is “like historical fan-fiction. You’ve got these people we’ve all heard of, and we’re watching them experience relationships and events that never happened.” She goes on in the same interview to imply it’s not about getting caught up in accuracy of the details, but rather “it’s about exploring these wild characters in hypothetical situations. We’ve kind of created a new world; it’s fantasy history.”
In this case, the history is accurate when it comes to overarching cultural themes and conclusions (i.e. Mary will end up marrying Francis, just like in real life), but the details are fictionalized. For example, Francis didn’t have a half brother named Bash in a love triangle with Mary; that character is entirely fictional. But don’t worry, you won’t be let down by this compelling drama.
“Vikings,” “Black Sails,” and “Reign” are all critically acclaimed in their own right, yet still offer varying levels of historical accuracy. Though reviews on their academic details vary, they have enough action, violence, sex, romance, and wit to captivate your heart yet a solid enough foundation in history to stimulate your brain. At the very least they’ll prime your curiosity so you go out and learn a thing or two on your own.
Photo: Jonathan Hession/History
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