A Fan's Guide to the Top Historical TV Shows

Period pieces come in all flavors, from comedies to dramas, with something for everyone.
Odin Odin (62)
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Period pieces, historical series, call them what you will: this sort of show is a window into another time and place, a lifestyle and mode of existence foreign to those of us who live in a modernized society.

Some of these series are madcap comedies that use the past as a way to self-reflexively examine the future (a technique Shakespeare himself used frequently in his plays). Others, are dramatic portrayals of life seen through the eyes of a tight cast of well-developed characters. Some are action epics built around wars past, tangential to the reality of the time period in question but brimming with the aesthetic of the age.

For inclusion in this particular collection, I went for sheer range; my goal is to bring you a little offering from the widest possible range of historical television fiction. Some, like Pride and Prejudice are high examples of series that tried to bring a strong sense of realism to the screen (the 1995 miniseries, unlike the atrocious 2005 film version, actually cares about accurate costumes, social conventions, and character portrayals — all of which add to the brilliance and subtlety of the humor and social maneuvering). Others, like Blackadder are ridiculous explosive comedies that have far more in common with fantasy than with historical accuracy, yet in their way reflect assumptions about history that are intriguing.

But other series I included, like I, Claudius live in a fascinating space between the worlds of fact and fiction (Claudius was a real Roman emperor, but Robert Graves’ novel was a fictionalized autobiography, and yet Graves used historical accounts to create the novel — the show brings this mixture of real history and drama together well, creating some exceedingly dark plotlines — pun intended — long before Game of Thrones appeared on the scene).

Whatever your proclivity, I think you’ll find something here that’s fun and new, and maybe when you’ve gotten hooked on one you’ll want to see what the others are like as well.

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Bonanza (1959)
Bonanza (1959)

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Bonanza was one of the longest-running American television series, and was noted for being (in full consideration of the time it was made) unique for tackling issues of racism in a way that concurrent shows typically did not even try to do. It concentrates on the story of the Cartwright family in Nevada in the 1860s. Trying to deal with political and social problems, handle personal upheaval, and struggling to make good choices when only hard ones are available were all hallmarks of the show.

Hot take

There’s a lot that is extremely dated from a modern perspective, and in many ways this series is itself a piece of history that will force audiences to consider what was normal not that long ago. But there’s also a lot to be said for the series in itself, from good acting to some fine writing; it’s an important piece in the vast stage of period television and shouldn’t be ignored.

The Untouchables (1959)
The Untouchables (1959)

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The Untouchables is the fictionalized retelling of an autobiography of prohibition agent by Eliot Ness who was a member of a special unit of morally-incorruptible men who worked to bring down Al Capone’s criminal empire.

Hot take

A really amazing show from an exciting era, this proved to be a landmark for dramas of this sort, highlighting film noir techniques and deep storytelling on the small screen. It’s a treat for anyone who loves classic gangster films, as well as anyone who want to try something a bit more relaxed than modern series that focus on crime which are almost always pretty depressing.

Hogan's Heroes (1965)
Hogan's Heroes (1965)

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Hogan's Heroes is definitely one of the most interesting series of all time, a comedic triumph focused on the prisoners of the fictional Stalag 13 prisoner of war camp who, thanks to a gullible camp commandant, are constantly making good on the “prisoner’s duty” (to escape).

Hot take

It’s a hilarious series with some great acting from a top-notch cast, with some snappy writing. Considering the era it was made, twenty years after the end of WWII, the lighthearted comedic take on the situation made sense. Today, with modern far-right groups growing, there’s a slightly darker edge to things, but that perhaps only makes the slapstick in here even more important as it represents a time when nobody would ever think its okay to stand anywhere near the Nazi flag.

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)
Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)

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Upstairs, Downstairs takes place during the years between 1903 and 1930 with the decline of the British aristocracy and the shifting scene from old cultural conventions into the new modern age. It’s a gripping drama about social positions and the problems they create, as well as the tension inherent when one class of people loses the privilege they always took for granted.

Hot take

Often cited as “the original Downton Abbey”, it follows the same era in time and deals with a number of the same issues. It was outstandingly successful in its day and, though it feels a bit dated now, is still a superb series. I’d say that if you liked Downton Abbey this will make a great companion piece to a rewatch of that show.

M * A * S * H (1972)
M * A * S * H (1972)

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M * A * S * H is certainly one of the best television series in history, a comedic show that divulged realities that the average viewing audience had never experienced before. It started out as a trite sitcom but, thanks to a mix of luck, a great cast, and intense subject matter, it turned into something magical. Dealing with the surgeons and staff of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, it focuses on a mixture of acerbic humor in the face of horror, and the funny (if sometimes petty) moments that make up a life under stress.

Hot take

It questioned the Vietnam War and the Cold War at a time when it was not necessarily smart for a major TV show to do so — but it walked that line and produced some cutting commentary on the idiocy of war and the inherent problems of American imperialism. One of the interesting things to note is that the show’s entire style changed over time, shifting from a comedic series with dramatic notes to a dramatic series with comedic notes (later seasons lack the laugh-track of the early ones, for instance).

Little House on the Prairie (1974)
Little House on the Prairie (1974)

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Little House on the Prairie is the tale of a family living on a farm in Minnesota during the 1870s to the 1890s, and is based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's best-selling novel series. A dramatic series, it managed to bring in lighthearted themes and comedy as well, offering a viewing experience that kept people immersed for all nine seasons.

Hot take

It’s a classic series that an entire generation will remember fondly, and it still stands strong on some good writing and acting.

QB VII (1974)
QB VII (1974)

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QB VII is the intense story of a doctor who escaped a Nazi concentration camp and the author who claims he was a Nazi collaborator. The court case in which the doctor defends himself is an intense examination of the brutality of the Nazi regime, and a powerful dramatic epic that forces the audience to examine the case as if they themselves were the jury.

Hot take

Some amazing performances here, especially from one of my all-time favorite actors, Anthony Hopkins. It’s a dramatic miniseries, running at around five hours, so it’s good for a consolidated binge.

Fall of Eagles (1974)
Fall of Eagles (1974)

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Fall of Eagles spans the historical period of 1848 to 1918, and concentrates on the ruling dynasties of Austria-Hungary (the Habsburgs), Germany (the Hohenzollerns) and Russia (the Romanovs). As the times change, as political uprisings take hold, and as World War I decimates the power of these old aristocracies, audiences become intimate with the people behind the scenes.

Hot take

A powerful and brilliant miniseries that was wonderfully directed and featured some excellent acting and directing as well. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Modern drama series are all too intent on action, on tricking the audience into paying attention. Fall of Eagles assumes that the audience is smart and plays into subtlety to make the story’s tension thrive. This means that the series avoids showing violence, too, by the way — sometimes rather awkwardly when acts of violence are important to the story being told. However, I find it refreshing to not have a show blowing out brains at every third act just to make viewers horrified.

There is a downside to the series, which is that it’s essentially an anthology and not a continuous arc. Some episodes are better than others, so be prepared for shifts in style and quality.

I, Claudius (1976)
I, Claudius (1976)

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I, Claudius is a brilliant exploration of Roman history, based on fictionalized autobiographies by Robert Graves, who based his fiction on the very real Roman emperor Claudius. The story tells of Claudius’s life before he became emperor, and his survival of a dynastic climate as hostile, cunning, and violent as any a modern audience could imagine.

Hot take

One of my favorite series, and one of the best dramatic period pieces of all time. A brilliant cast and superb writing. Audiences will note that the directing and film quality is distinctly lower-quality that dramas that are made today, but this won’t detract from the tale being told.

Roots (1977)
Roots (1977)

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Roots is a powerful dramatic saga of a young African man in 1750 who is captured and brought to America as a slave. Subsequent episodes explore further generations of his descendants, and later sequels to the series bring the story up through the 1960s.

Hot take

It’s vibrant, violent, beautiful, heart-wrenching, and unforgettable. In 2016, a remake of the series was produced which was likewise excellent, but this original version stands out as something unique and special for its time.

Shōgun (1980)
Shōgun (1980)

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Shōgun is loosely based on the life of real English navigator William Adams, and follows fictional Englishman John Blackthorne as he climbs the ladder of service to Japan’s shōgun in the 1600s.

Hot take

Definitely one of the cult classic series of the age. Epic sword fights, political intrigue, sensual romance, all brought together with some excellent acting chops.

Brideshead Revisited (1981)
Brideshead Revisited (1981)

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Brideshead Revisited is considered one of the greatest British television series of all time, with The Telegraph stating that it is television’s greatest literary adaptation, bar none. Concentrating on the life and romances of the protagonist Charles Ryder, it is a powerful dramatic exploration of family, religion, and love.

Hot take

Seriously, it’s a series that dominates the landscape of dramatic television, maintaining bold ties to the original novel whilst capturing a unique essence that could only be found on the small screen.

Blackadder (1983)
Blackadder (1983)

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Blackadder is unique in our list of historical series for being ultimately as non-historic as possible for a period-themed television series. This comedy takes a stab at the conventions and idiosyncrasies of a number of eras in British history, held together by Rowan Atkinson who portrays various members of the Blackadder descendants throughout the centuries.

Hot take

One of the funniest shows I’ve had the privilege to enjoy and a great break from heavy historical dramas.

Jane Eyre (1983)
Jane Eyre (1983)

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Jane Eyre adapts the novel of the same name by Charlotte Brontë, exploring the social conventions, moral dilemmas, and problems of late 18th to early 19th century England. Jane’s life is a hard one; abused by her aunt and cousins, beset by oppression in her later years while at school, and suffering all manner of hardships as she tries to live her life in a world unfavorable to her and her gender, Jane nevertheless manages to find love in one of the greatest romances ever told.

Hot take

It’s honestly a depressing story in man ways, especially in seeing how a young Jane was treated by her family. But the catharsis of the story is worthwhile, and the deep social criticism implicit in the story shines in this adaptation in a way that modern versions (duh, because modern versions of things are weirdly substandard) fail consistently to do.

A Woman of Substance (1985)
A Woman of Substance (1985)

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A Woman of Substance tells the life story of Emma, a woman who started out a servant in the early 1900s but became a business mogul in a world opposed to powerful women.

Hot take

A gripping romantic epic with powerhouse performances by its entire cast. This is one epic drama that too many people don’t know about, and one that holds up well almost forty years after its original production.

Lonesome Dove (1989)
Lonesome Dove (1989)

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Lonesome Dove was a hit Western long after Westerns were considered dead as a popular genre. It tells the tale of two former Texas Rangers who end up setting out on an epic quest to find a new life after one shoots a mayor in a barroom brawl and becomes a fugitive.

Hot take

It really was one of the last great gasps from a dying genre, and provided a chance for modern audiences to experience the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Larry McMurtry as told through the magic of the small screen.

The Phantom of the Opera (1990)
The Phantom of the Opera (1990)

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The Phantom of the Opera is a chilling, dramatic, and stirring retelling of this classic melodrama. It manages to bring to the small screen a splendor that befits the tale of the forlorn and lovesick Phantom and the young singer who he adores.

Hot take

There lies in this version much cheese, but also much emotional power. It’s honestly terrifying at times, calling back to an earlier mode of non-gruesome horror, and it’s a vastly different adaptation than those most are familiar with.

Sharpe (1993)
Sharpe (1993)

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Sharpe is a series depicting fictional events during the Napoleonic Wars, concentrated on Richard Sharpe who leads a rifle company into dangerous situations, engages in gripping romances, and adapts the novels by Bernard Cornwell snappishly to the small screen.

Hot take

It feels totally dated in places and certainly would have worked better as a full series rather than a miniseries. As it currently stands, each episode follows the rough plot of one of the novels, and this leads to some awkward writing at times. That said, there’s still a lot here to love. It’s a gripping melodrama that can still be enjoyed.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)
Pride and Prejudice (1995)

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Pride and Prejudice (1995) is the best version of this story ever placed into the media of film. A tale of social strata, love, explorations of selfishness and pride, and one of the snarkiest stories ever told.

Hot take

I might be prejudiced, but this really is the best version. The costumes are actually on-point, the social conventions at play, the acting, the diction when the actors deliver the lines, the subtlety in the delivery of the performances… it’s really just wonderful. If you want to know more, check out this piece I wrote about why men need to watch this.

Wives and Daughters (1999)
Wives and Daughters (1999)

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Wives and Daughters is based on the writing of Elizabeth Gaskell and tells the charming romantic story of Molly Gibson who finds her life changed when her widowed father chooses to remarry.

Hot take

This comes from the due who collaborated on the incredible 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, so you know it’s going to be good. Faithfully adapted and with a superb cast, this is definitely one you’ll fall in love with.

David Copperfield (1999)
David Copperfield (1999)

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David Copperfield was a two-part miniseries adaptation from BBC that brought the classic Charles Dickens tale to the small screen. With a vibrant cast (including Maggie Smith and a very young Daniel Radcliffe), this is the coming-of-age tale of the titular David Copperfield as he struggles through the dark waters of English society, finding unlikely friends along the way.

Hot take

One of my favorite adaptation of this story and brimming with one of the best casts of British actors of the era.

Band of Brothers (2001)
Band of Brothers (2001)

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Band of Brothers tells a unique World War II tale of combat, violence, and the shared unforgettable experience of brotherhood experienced in this, the greatest and most harrowing of wars.

Hot take

An eleven-hour miniseries that explores some of the darkest parts of war—it’s harrowing, it’s heartbreaking, it’s incredible.

Rome (2005)
Rome (2005)

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Rome is the tale of two soldiers named Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo who find themselves nearby and within the great changing landscape of late Rome, their lives intertwined with major events in history and the crumbling of an empire.

Hot take

This was basically the reason why Game of Thrones got made: proof that there was mass audience appeal for a series of this kind. Gritty politics, blood, and sex, all thrown together in this high-budget series. Season two flopped pretty hard because the producers, unable to sustain the budget of the show, squished three seasons into one. They also made some terrible edits in season one to enhance the sex and bloodshed while removing much-need historical information. But, while the show had its issues, it also had some great moments, and certain featured elements of real history in and among the fantasy.

John Addams (2008)
John Addams (2008)

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John Addams chronicles and political life of John Adams, the second President of the United States. From before the Revolutionary War, to Addams’ retirement in 1803, this is the definitive dramatic adaptation of his life and time.

Hot take

Look, it’s not historically accurate in a massive number of ways, almost all of them tracing back to the writer’s absurd desire to ramp up the drama of certain aspects of the real-world events. That said: there’s a lot here to love, including the brilliant acting.

Boardwalk Empire (2010)
Boardwalk Empire (2010)

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Boardwalk Empire is the story of Nucky Thompson, based on the real-world Atlantic City, New Jersey political figure Enoch Lewis "Nucky" Johnson. It’s the ridiculously violent and dark exploration of gang violence during the 1920s prohibition-era.

Hot take

Martin Scorsese directed the first episode and that made waves, and Steve Buscemi’s performance as the lead was really incredible. Ultimately, however, I find it to be exactly the same as all other modern shows that focus on crime: deliriously obsessed with melodrama and bad-hook writing. Amazing acting, great costumes—all true, but it’s ultimately a bit depressing.

Downton Abbey (2010)
Downton Abbey (2010)

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Downton Abbey is a historical drama set between 1912 and 1926, with the fall of th British aristocracy in the face of changing social mores. The cast is split between the various members of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, highlighting the social differences in between.

Hot take

Remember that it’s a historical drama and not a history piece and you’ll be fine. Sadly, it still suffers from the melodramatic and clichéd writing that so many modern shows employ. That said, the cast is delightful, so much of the background is incredible in its faithful rendering of set and etiquette, and some parts of the tale are told quite well. Also: Magiie Smith.

Call the Midwife (2012)
Call the Midwife (2012)

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Call the Midwife is the tale of a group of midwif nurses working in London’s the East End during the 1950s and 1960s, and is loosely based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth who herself worked as a nurse and midwife during this time.

Hot take

The series does a great job of exploring a wide range of important topics, from nationalized healthcare to religion, to effects of poverty. It’s a sometimes intense series, but it always tries to shine a positive light even on the darkest subjects in its sphere.

Peaky Blinders (2013)
Peaky Blinders (2013)

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Peaky Blinders tells the stories of members of the Shelby crime family in Birmingham following the First World War (loosely based on the gang of the same name). It’s ultimately the story of a family’s life between two major wars, and all the changes that they face.

Hot take

There are plenty of issues with the accuracy of the series, especially with relation to Series four and five when the character Jessie Eden (based on the real British communist and trade union leader) was introduced. This was unfortunate. However, other aspects of the show, especially the acting and the costumes, remain very strong. The writing is heavy-handed as you’d expect from a dark period drama.

TURN: Washington's Spies (2014)
TURN: Washington's Spies (2014)

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TURN: Washington's Spies is based on Alexander Rose's book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring and follows events in American history from 1776 to 1781 as a number of spies form a group called the Culper Ring — and help turn the tide against the British during the Revolutionary War.

Hot take

A lot of fun. There are plenty of times when the drama in the writing was just ridiculously over the top, but in a way that worked in the show’s favor. Instead of trying to hook viewers in with a sense of horror, TURN ran with an almost graphic novel-esque pace much of the time. I found it reasonably addicting and a heck of a lot more fun than a number of other modern dramas. Some solid acting in here as well. (Just don’t expect historical accuracy. It’s definitely fiction).

The Crown (2016)
The Crown (2016)

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The Crown portrays the life of Queen Elizabeth II as she deals with the aftermath of World War Two and the struggles for power taking place around her, as well as the pressures on her own relationships. Further seasons switch out actors to account for the fast-forwarded time, as each season progresses several decades into the Queen’s life.

Hot take

It’s fiction (I never cease to be amazed that anyone needs this qualifier). Plenty of the material, especially in later seasons, isn’t anything more than fiction. But the early seasons, especially, pay great homage to the pressures that someone from the royal background is under, and the difficulties inherent for a woman who assumed the throne at that point in history. It’s fascinating, dramatic, and definitely keeps you glued to the screen.

Gentleman Jack (2019)
Gentleman Jack (2019)

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Gentleman Jack is the tale of landowner and industrialist Anne Lister, sometimes referred to as “Gentleman Jack”, a lesbian who commanded more power in 1832 than many men believed she should—and her search for true love, which she just may have found in the arms of the vivacious Ann Walker.

Hot take

I am in love with this series. There are some rather annoying anachronistic choices that I wish had been left out (and were clearly just included to make a lower-caliber modern viewership pay attention). All that said: this series is so great. There’s humor, direct quotes from the source material, and a deliciously good cast.

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Odin Hartshorn Halvorson is a writer, geek, and hopeful futurist. A graduate from Stonecoast MFA, his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the founder of Round Table Writers, an organization dedicated to "writers helping writers." Odin's love of Roddenberrian and Straczynskian ideals leads him to contemplate technology's role in our evolving philosophic landscape, a line of inquiry threaded through both his fiction and non-fiction writing. Learn more at OdinHalvorson.com
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