Period dramas on television have become all the rage in recent years. The opportunity to re-create a particular age in fine detail draws talented costume designers, production designers, cinematographers, directors, and actors to practice their craft on big-budget series that delight viewers in search of escape from the daily grind. Something about seeing another time and place carefully portrayed brings a thrill to the senses and a feeling of the great scope of human experience. Here's our Buzzlist of Top 5 Lavish Period Dramas.
Hell on Wheels (AMC) – This slice of post-Civil-War life is somewhat lurid, somewhat melodramatic, and a hell of a lot of fun. It tells a classic revenge tale about a former Confederate soldier named Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) on a dire quest to avenge the murder of his wife by Union troops. With Colm Meaney as an unscrupulous railroad baron, Virginia Madsen as his wife, and Common as a recently-freed slave, it's hard to go wrong. The sets and costumes feel authentic, and the show throws in little details of late-1800s daily life that give the more over-the-top elements a much-needed grounding in reality. It's exciting and addictive.
Mad Men (AMC) – The current king of period dramas, Mad Men has captivated the cultural consciousness like no other. Maybe it's the thoughtful examination of changing gender roles in the 1960s; maybe it's the sense of nostalgia for a seemingly-simpler time; or maybe it's the fantastically glamorous clothes, hair, booze, and cigarettes. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have attractive and talented actors like John Hamm and Christina Hendricks epitomizing the too-perfect facade of life in a big-shot New York advertising agency. Besides its infectious style, the show also provides a look at the climate that shaped our current culture of mass-media madness.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO) – Few time periods fascinate American audiences more than the Prohibition era of gangsters, guns, corrupt politics, and illicit traffic in the vices we now take for granted. The redoubtable Steve Buscemi brings a humanizing vulnerability to the larger-than-life figure of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, Treasurer of Atlantic County in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He's a man with enormous political power and access to all manner of corrupt indulgences, but he's also a man struggling to lead his own version of a decent life. Executive producers Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg help creator Terence Winter (of Sopranos fame) fashion a believable 1920s world.
Downton Abbey (ITV) – This distinctly English drama centers on the titular abbey, the country house of the Earl and Countess of Grantham. The story follows the trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Crawley family and their household as they cope with events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Marconi scandal, and the coming of World War I. In addition to these world-spanning affairs, they must also negotiate more personal matters of love, class, and social obligation – not to mention the introduction of new and life-altering devices such as the home telephone. With more Emmy nominations than any other international show in history, the show's unique charm is contagious.
Rome (BBC/HBO) – The further back in time you go, the more difficult it becomes to achieve any kind of real historical accuracy. What would the daily physical and emotional lives of people in the 1st Century BCE actually be like? Fans of Ridley Scott's Gladiator will understand that stories like this say less about their settings and more about our modern-day relationship to our ideas about the past. Yes, we tend to view it through a lens of heightened theatricality, but with legendary characters like Julius Caesar running around, it's difficult not to. If you enjoy the epic scale and visceral tension of such retellings, then Rome is well worth your time.
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