Even before its premiere, AMC‘s new historical drama, AMC’s Hell on Wheels, came under fire, with many calling it a “white-washing” of history. Specifically, the show’s lack of Asian characters and the fact that the main character conveinently freed his slaves before the Civil War has drawn criticism. While the show’s creators have offered reasonable explanations for their decisions, we are reminded of a recurring problem with period pieces: They’re often crafted to meet the sensibilities of contemporary audiences rather than accurately reflect the people, events, and circumstances of the time. So while Hell on Wheels finds itself behind the eightball, let’s look at a few period pieces that got it right, often unapologetically.
I realize how silly it appears to create a list of historically accurate television shows, then populate it with so many HBO series. But just because it appears silly doesn’t mean it’s wrong, and the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries Band of Brothers is a great example of the steps both the producers and the network take to ensure accuracy when other parties would simply bring the drama.
To start things off, Band of Brothers is based on a book by noted and lauded historian Steven Ambrose who earlier worked with both Spielberg and Hanks on Saving Private Ryan as a military consultant. Though he was hit with allegations of plagiarism in his 2002 work The Wild Blue, allegations came from improper citing. Ambrose issued an apology and the world kept on spinning.
In the adaptation of Band of Brothers, most of the surviving members of Easy Company were asked for their input on even the most minute details. Photos and firsthand accounts were used in the selection of weapons, costumes, and the mannerisms of the soldiers.
Even the actors met with the men they were playing, when possible, in order to get a feel for the war that the book didn’t provide for any number of reasons. As such, the veterans that offered input all gave the program their blessing and approval, which speaks higher than any critical or academic praise could. That said, the series has not only stood up to scrutiny from academics, but he garnered their praise for its depiction of perhaps the most studied era in human history.
Another shocker, I’m sure. Mad Men has been praised as both a character study and study of its era. While the study of its characters is outside the scope of this discussion, its hard to examine the veracity and accuracy of this program without examining the behavior of the characters (to some extent, at least. This is shaping up to be a more herculean task than I anticipated) in their context.
Beyond the meticulous production and costume design, which has garnered no shortage of accolades and many would claim is the true star of the show, they get the zeitgeist (I hate that word and everything it represents) right. Mad Men’s “plot” seems largely incidental when compared to the program’s study of gender, race, and cultural issues during the timeframe of the show.
Since its inception, critics have heaped praise on the show for managing to create a sexiness and glamour from such an accurate depiction. Is it possible that people were smoking and drinking that much in the early 60’s? Yeah. It’s not so much that Matthew Weiner, the creator and showrunner, picked an era, then contorted it until it became suitably entertaining, but, rather, he picked an era that was entertaining, and, despite the fact that the show begins less than 50 years ago, it seems about as foreign to us as a show about Henry VII or Spartacus.
I mean, THEY’RE SMOKING IN THEIR OFFICES! For today’s audience, that’s about as bizarre as the concept of a gladiator match.
Aside from the superficial details, the constructs of the show (corporate culture, gender issues, and sexual politics) bear only a fleeting resemblance to what they are now, but one must remember that the reason this show exists is because advertising in Manhattan, during this period, was this glamorous, and was this different than the world we know now. Get past the suits and Lucky Strikes, and one will see a more profound snapshot on the American landscape than many knew existed.