5 Recent TV Dramas That Got History Right

Monday, November 7 by

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.

Deadwood

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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