Today’s television is stuck in the past — and the result has been thrilling. Masters of Sex, Showtime’s ’50s-set series about that most timeless and taboo of subjects (i.e., humping), has matured into a cream-of-the-crop pleasure in its second season. Manhattan, WGN America’s WWII-era saga about the eggheads who toiled secretly to build the atom bomb, is a radiant surprise. And The Knick, Cinemax’s turn-of-the-century St. Elsewhere, gives us one of 2014’s best performances: director Steven Soderbergh’s inspired storytelling. This is to say nothing of Outlander, Halt and Catch Fire, and Turn, and if you want to be comprehensive about it, the latest seasons of Hell on Wheels, The Americans, Call the Midwife, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, and, of course, Mad Men. This is the Golden Age of Historical Dramas. But how long should it last?
It’s easy to be cynical about the current rash of retro. ”Period” has long connoted ”prestige” in Hollywood, and in today’s TV biz ”restige” is a valuable sensibility. Even if it doesn’t produce huge hits, it can build network brands and clout by generating critical buzz and Emmy nods. AMC and Mad Men set the example; scrappy upstart WGN America and outliers like Cinemax are following it. Auteur showrunner? Check. Crypto-moral protagonist played by charismatic thesp? Check. Blood and boobs? Check and double check.
I’m not complaining, though. Cold, calculating ambition is the crude that fuels achievement — a point, ironically, that period dramas such as The Knick and Halt and Catch Fire hit hard and often. Once, TV was averse to period pieces because believable evocations of the past were cost-prohibitive. Not so anymore, thanks to computer-generated effects, go-for-broke risk-taking, and verisimilitude demanded by the film directors TV desperately wants to lure. The results — like Manhattan’s re-creation of Los Alamos — are striking, transporting worlds.
History can be a friend to artistry. Michael Sheen, Clive Owen, and Lee Pace are skilled actors, and even better when they can pull from real life to inform their characterizations. And in the hands of talented writers, the past can resonate as cultural origin stories (see: Manhattan, the big bang of Superpower America) or as allegories about the present (see: The Knick, with its dual emphases on technological and social progress, and the relationship between the two), albeit from a partisan or personal perspective.
But as engaged as I’ve been by recent period dramas, some propagate tropes that deserve to be things of the past. I appreciate the provocations of so much early-21st-century prestige TV — the demythologizing and remythologizing of the American Century, the critique of the Great Man narrative — but enough with the so-called antihero archetypes. What was once potent has become flaccid and joyless. Did our entry point into The Knick’s Gilded Age New York — Owen’s drug-smacked whoremongering angry-at-God racist — really have to be a compendium of cable-TV male clichés? He couldn’t have been just a few of those things — or something new altogether? Historical dramas are more willing to deal with issues of class, race, and gender than their contemporary counterparts. Nonetheless, they often give us more of what we don’t need in order to illustrate their retrograde realities: women and minorities as suffering, supporting-role citizens.
Recently, a TV producer told me that one of the reasons historical dramas appeal to audiences — especially those wary of committing to serials — is the inevitability factor. Since we know the history, there is greater confidence in the storytelling because we can see the big-picture arc. I worry this encourages TV writers to service history instead of chase more novel representations and fresher, yet no less credible, scenarios. On Masters, the closeted homosexual played by Beau Bridges — who believes he has a mental illness — submitted to electroshock therapy, then tried to kill himself. This heartbreaking development was ”true to the period” — and totally predictable.
My admiration for (and ambivalence about) historical dramas makes me want more and better from the genre. But it also makes me appreciate contemporary dramas such as Orange Is the New Black even more — shows that grapple with the complexities of human nature without hiding behind the metaphors of mutant monsters, supernatural catastrophes, or the analogous woes of yesteryear. Great drama should be found in any time, past, present, and beyond.