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.

Band of Brothers

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.

Mad Men

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.

The Wire

It’s a violation of national law to discuss good television and not bring up The Wire, so here we are. The fact that took place in the past decade doesn’t make it any less demonstrative of its time than a Victorian program or a series about the roaring twenties. Despite the fact that we haven’t removed ourselves from the period of study to gain any perspective, critics and academics alike have fallen all over themselves to praise the show not only for its intricate Shakespearean storylines, but also for its portrayal of gray areas and frustration in not only the war on drugs, but other contemporary civic institutions (politics, law enforcement, press, education).

The drama that comes from this show isn’t drawn from caricatures or implausible actions, but rather from the, for lack of better term, “realness” of the whole thing. Such instant recognition is rare, and comes in odd forms. The most similar example that comes to mind of a work being so embraced for accuracy in its own era is Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which is different from The Wire in virtually every conceivable fashion.

While The Wire could easily compel a fan and critic (I’m both) to spout off thousands of words, suffice it to say this shows serves as a barometer of the times better than any contemporary drama. The fact that we aren’t far enough away to be able to prove it is far outweighed by the fact that we’re still entrenched in the era enough to feel it.


After all the romanticized accounts of the wild west (many in the 50’s, when there were approximately 76,000 of them) it was odd to see one that was so much more a study of its time than a gunslinger saga. Deadwood creator David Milch freely took liberties, painting a picture of the lawless era using both fictional and historical characters. Some buildings were real, some were “created” to suit the story; Milch freely admits this. This historical blurring doesn’t change the overall accuracy of the series. Aside from Band of Brothers, none of these “accurate shows” purport to be non-fiction, which makes their accuracy all the more impressive. Rather than recite a story that took place in an era, Deadwood creates a new saga with enough touchpoints to keep the viewer nodding and saying, yeah, “I remember Wild Bill Hickok.”

The attention to dialogue was perhaps the most notable aspect of the show, and a feature that is often praised for its accuracy. These guys swore a LOT, apparently.

Congrats to David Milch and the rest of those cocksuckers that realized that the old west had ugly, filthy whores, and that lawlessness came with a lot more unpleasant baggage than Gunsmoke let on.

The Kennedys

This one almost didn’t make it to any American households due to the picture it painted of the divisive political family. Early on, critics and historians claimed the miniseries was rife with inaccuracies, turning off both audiences and networks before the project was even shot.

The History Channel evasively backed away from airing the program, claiming its “historical inaccuracies,” despite the fact that the channels resident historian (I’m guessing resident historian for The History Channel is a pretty important job) had approved all scripts and final cuts of the episodes.

The consensus is, after the airing, that the Kennedy clan and those close to it applied pressure on the network to not air the show, which presented a fair amount of unpleasant scandal in a forthright manner. Despite the fact that the show wasn’t picked up until much further down the line, the common conception is that the show not only painted an honest picture, but aired some scandal that hadn’t even entered the public consciousness.

New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley sums it up nicely, "There is something wonderfully Kennedyesque about a backroom campaign to discredit a series that claims the Kennedy White House had more than its share of backroom shenanigans."

The fact that the most vocal (and only) detractors of the veracity of this series seem to be the Kennedys themselves speaks volumes.

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