Bridgerton And The Period Piece: Why Historical Dramas Are All The Rage

Period pieces are all the rage these days. They owe their success to historical accuracy, amazing set-pieces, beautiful costumes, and, most recently, diversity.
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Bridgerton Book
The tie-in book for Netflix’s Bridgerton.

The Period Piece On Netflix

There has been a renaissance of period piece films and television shows in the last few years that has relied on many aspects to achieving success. Included among them are major set pieces, great character actors, historical accuracy, and elaborate costumes. In addition to these, one relatively new aspect that deserves attention is the inclusion of diversity.

Netflix's most popular period piece Bridgerton, with a cast led by Phoebe Dveynor, has received widespread critical acclaim. It has been renewed for a second, third and fourth season.

Shows this year, such as Bridgerton, which takes place in Regency-era Britain, have landed on the scene with a big splash and have been lauded for their attention to detail and costume design. Bridgerton has also gained recognition for their inclusion of people of color in not only the cast but the historical landscape in which they paint their story.

If you are looking for something to watch, a show or film you can really let your imagination run wild in, then look no further than a good period piece. My wife and I are both avid readers and love historical dramas, whether it be Jane Austen or Emily Bronte. When we were first dating long distance, we did an over-the-phone book club and read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. That book from the past allowed us both to exist in that historical time together, and it brought us closer in our own real world.

Netflix has a real hit on their hands with Bridgerton, and they owe their success to multiple factors. Lead actress Phoebe Dveynor is a revelation as Daphne Bridgerton. The sets, the costumes, and the overall romantic feel of the show make it captivating to watch.  The success has been staggering and so, on January 21, Netflix announced that it had renewed Bridgerton for a second season.

Cover Art For I Know This Much Is True
Image Source: IMDB

The Period Piece on HBO

With the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, television shows have become as expansive and as involved as films. In the last decade, shows like the 1920’s drama, Boardwalk Empire, backed by Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos alumni Terence Winter, have emerged as some of the best period pieces to come out in the 21st century.

Utilizing large, well-built set pieces, major attention to historical accuracy, as well as costumes, to die for, this show has gone down in history. Lead actor Steve Buscemi received a host of nominations in his role as politician/gangster Enoch Thompson. 

HBO has always had an interest in series centered on the past. Their most recent hit, I Know This Much Is True, based on the novel of the same name by Wally Lamb, and starring Mark Ruffalo, saw great success. It even earned Mark Ruffalo the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie. HBO has started to insert film stars into their TV shows and the results are easy to gauge.

Though I hadn't yet read Wally Lamb's magnum opus, I Know This Much Is True, the show turned me on to buying it and I can say I am glad I did. This is just one of the amazing things a historical drama can do for you. Not only does it educate you on the past, but it also pushes you to dig deeper, do research and read the source material.

My wife always says that the book is better than the movie, and I agree on most occasions. The book allows you to imagine the events for yourself, and as the creator of your own interpretation, it feels like you are actually experiencing the story. But when a period piece is well-executed, well-funded, and impeccably acted, the spectacle can be just as enamoring as the book itself.

In 2011, Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce, both exceptional English stars are known for their 1990's success with Titanic and Memento, respectively, paired up for HBO's Mildred Pierce.  This period piece placed itself during The Great Depression, showing us a female's perspective in the male-dominated time. If you enjoyed these two, you should check out Mare of Easttown, another new HBO show starring Winslet and Pearce, though this one takes place in current times.

HBO ad for The Last Tycoon
Image Source: IMDB

The Period Piece On Amazon

It is not only HBO that has dipped their feet in the early 20th-century pool seeking inspiration. Amazon Prime released a modified version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished book, The Last Tycoon, as a season-long series in 2017. It was canceled before it could really take off, but the social issues it addressed as well as the spot-on costumes, earned it many a rave review. Matt Bomer was praised in his role as the main character, Monroe Stahr. 

Amazon has seen great success with The Man In The High Castle, an alternate post-WWII world in which the Axis Powers have won the war.  Based on Phillip K. Dick's novel of the same name, this show started in 2015 and ran for four seasons. It was a huge hit, and really put Amazon on the map as far as original content goes.

A few years ago, my older brother turned me on to The Man In The High Castle, and while I was skeptical of the alternate history take at first, I learned to love it. A truly terrifying world in which Germany won the war and controlled America was such a bizarre and unimaginable twist on our real timeline, that the show took my mind to places I never would have gone on my own.

In addition to these huge hits from Amazon, they are currently working on season 4 of their greatest period piece yet, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which follows Rachel Brosnahan as a 1950's divorcee who is trying to make it as a comedian in Manhattan. This series has earned Amazon several Emmy awards, and it is also currently one of the most talked-about shows available on streaming platforms.

BBC's The Tudors
Image Source: Amazon

The Period Piece on Showtime

Recently, there has been special attention paid to the Tudor era with shows like The Tudors on Showtime, which premiered in 2007. The dresses, corsets, and bonnets from this era have become iconic and the drama of these medieval shows has etched itself into the modern memory of our cultural fabric. Starring Johnathon Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII, the show ran for four impressive seasons.

My wife took a course on Tudor history in college, and though we hadn't yet started dating, I was on the other side of the state reading about Henry The VIII and his wives. When we finally did get together, we were able to connect over our shared interest of that strange time in English history when one man ruled the country with an iron fist and got away with it all. 

Next, Showtime chose to embrace a more fantasy-based drama with their acclaimed Penny Dreadful series.  Taking place in London in the late 1800s and featuring some of the most famous public domain characters from 19th-century Victorian Gothic fiction, the series ran for three seasons before a spin-off show, Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels gave us a glimpse into Los Angeles in 1938.

Showtime has had a real boost from actress Natalie Dormer, who played Anne Boleyn in The Tudors as well as playing Magda in Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels. While City Of Angels was not as well-received as the original Penny Dreadful, it is clear Showtime has devoted a large amount of money to stake their claim in the growing period piece market.

ad poster for The Great on Hulu
Image Source: IMDB

The Period Piece On Hulu

Hulu's The Great starring Elle Fanning is one of the best-period pieces out right now.  Released in 2020, it is witty, comical, and romantic all at once. Because of this, it has earned critical acclaim.  Set design, great performances, and a unique way of handling historical accuracy make this must-watch tv.

Elle has really stepped into her own in this role, though it should be mentioned here that her sister Dakota Fanning, has made a name for herself in the historical drama department as well. Dakota plays Sarah Howard on TNT's The Alienist and both sisters are doing extremely well for themselves in this market. Based on Catherine The Great's rise to power, this period piece is lauded by critics and audiences alike.

My wife and I are avid watchers of Dakota Fanning on The Alienist, and we have been following her since her breakout performance in Uptown Girls. Dakota also appeared in a period piece film very close to our hearts in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, as Mansonite Squeaky Fromme.

Nicholas Hoult, from Skins fame, has really matured in this role and is consistently the funniest character on the screen. The writing is absolutely contagiously funny, but it would land flat without delivery and so, Hoult's comedic timing is to be praised here. The chemistry between his character, Emperor Peter III, and Fanning's Catherine, make for darkly engaging sequences.

Ad for Emma
Image Source: IMDB

The Period Piece In Film

While there are plenty more examples of amazing period pieces and historical dramas to list from the past, let us first discuss why these have become so popular in recent years. With the culture of fashion always changing and more people becoming influencers and models than ever, a special interest has been paid to the clothing of the past. Apps like Pinterest and Tumblr have put fashion eras on the forefront, and there are many decades that remain close to the American heart.

As a result, period piece films have become very popular in our modern era. With the remake of Jane Austen's classic Emma in 2020, Anya Taylor-Joy played Emma and led the film to critical acclaim. It earned two Academy Award nominations for its exceptional aesthetics including Best Costume Design and Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

Few movies can excite you like a period piece. When Emma came out at the beginning of the lockdown, my wife and I paid good money to rent it and stream it at home.  It was a taste of something we had not got to do in a while, and with popcorn, hot pretzels, and cheese, as well as a 2-liter of Coke, we made our own movie night. Jane Austen really does know how to keep you captivated and it is no wonder she is one of the most revered English authors of all time.

Recently, the 1800s have been a particularly successful setting for these films, and movies such as Emma or the Greta Gerwig-directed Little Women revamp, have done extraordinarily well at the Academy Awards, the latter taking home Best Picture. 

Though period pieces have always been a large part of the film industry, since their inception, it is good to know that we are still producing quality historical dramas at a fast rate. With access to technology, historical archives as well as CGI, the period pieces made in our modern era stand toe to toe with some of the best of all time.

The poster for Stranger Things Season 3
Image Source: DenofGeek

Period Pieces Set In the 1980s

America has also shown a marked interest in the 1980s. This renaissance in historical fiction also owes itself to our internet era. These days, when it takes just a few clicks to go from totally unversed to well-studied in any subject or art movement, it can be a simple matter of research that determines the next big decade to be visited in the films to come.

Shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s This Much I Know Is True have become extremely successful using the past as a plot point. Narcos is also a show that uses its 80’s fashion as well as a historical crime to create a captive audience. 

For my wife and I, Stranger Things Season 3 was consumed all the way through in our living room on July 4th, 2019. We were enamored with the setting and the action sequences as well as the soundtrack. Personally, I rank it up there with season 1, although I know critics don't consider season 3 their strongest output.

The most recent season of American Horror Story, AHS: 1985 featured an 80's soundtrack, classic 80's outfits, and tons of references to that popular decade. Capitalizing on the true-crime interest of the 2010s, AHS: 1985 utilized the character of serial killer Richard Ramirez to play a large part in their own constructed drama.

Phoebe Dveynor as Daphne Bridgerton
Image Source: Refinery 29

Bridgerton Season 1

While many of these historical dramas have been based upon books, few have made such a large splash as Netflix’s Bridgerton. Starring Phoebe Dynevor as a beautiful young British debutante who captures the hard heart of the Duke of Hastings, played by Rege-Jean Page to excellent effect, Bridgerton has seeped into the lives of people who would not ordinarily enjoy a historical drama. This burst into the mainstream earlier this year and because of this show, we will probably see many more like it down the line.

This is great news for historians. For centuries, great thinkers have tried to get our youth interested in our past as a way of teaching them not to repeat our mistakes. By releasing these shows and movies, history is now being made fun and easy to consume. The attention to detail, vibrant costumes, as well as exquisite acting, and sexy vibe of these shows have gotten people interested in history once again. If these shows lead people to do some research of their own, just imagine where the rabbit hole of learning may lead them next. 

Still, there has been some debate and concerns about historical feature films and shows. Many critics, harsh though they may be, have a right to point out inaccuracies in films that pose as authentic and period-specific. Minor discrepancies get called out on Twitter as well as Instagram, and this makes the production teams have to put their research efforts into overdrive. Still, mistakes do happen. What is perhaps more interesting though are the liberties that some of these shows choose to make in order to paint a more inclusive picture.

Sacha Dawan and Elle Fanning in a scene for The Great
Image Source: Showbiz

Diversity In Period Pieces

One of the most popular historical dramas of the last year is called The Great, starring Elle Fanning as a young Catherine The Great. This product is released through Hulu and its comic wit and deadpan timing make it an absolute gem. But is also very progressive in terms of its inclusion of people of color in its roster of actors and actresses.

The decision to include English-Indian actor Sacha Dhawan as one of Emperor Peter’s right-hand men is crucial. He, after all, delivers a phenomenal performance. His humor and manipulative behavior make him one of the most interesting characters on the show, no matter if he is Russian or not.

It is truly a great time to be alive when men can be picked for a role because of merit and not just historical accuracy. When actors are viewed by their talents and not their race, we are truly at a better place in the often complicated show business. 

Bridgerton takes these liberties as well. Though there exists a historical debate around the ethnicity of Queen Charlotte of Regency-Era England, Bridgerton chose to embrace this by choosing Guyanese-British actress and singer, Golda Rosheuval to play the royal role.

Bridgerton's interpretation of Queen Charlotte
Image Source: Marie Claire

She brings camp and humor to the position, which allows Bridgerton to exist in an alternate reality many of us would have very much liked to live in. The England of Bridgerton is a more progressive and inclusive environment in which people of color have been elevated to positions of power.

As someone who prides themselves on their knowledge of history, which I would consider a personal hobby, I was surprised at the choice of Golda Rosheuval to play Queen Charlotte. This was not because of my opinion of her, for I had not known she existed before this show. It was because I did not know that the real Queen Charlotte had a historical mystery surrounding her ethnicity.

In this case, Bridgerton ended up teaching me something by casting her in this role. I was forced to look this up and found evidence to both sides of the argument, which enriched my understanding of the show and of Regency England as a whole. I have to say I really do appreciate a show that makes me think and teaches me something new. Rosheuval also really shines in this role and I am glad she was made a part of the cast. She absolutely deserved it.

There even exists a rather strong plot point for the Duke of Hastings in which he battles the ghost of his father, one of the first such appointed men of this institution. Bridgerton tackles a diverse group of relatable topics, and this is one of the show's main strengths.

Fighting against his difficult past with his father as well as his hopeful future with Daphne, their relationship shows perhaps what could be a beautiful joining of two great cultures, minus the divide of our current times. These kinds of portrayals are hopeful and can give fans of historical fiction something to look forward to down the line. 

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men by AMC
Image Source: TIME

The Most Successful Period Piece

Of course, on the flip side, there are also historical shows that receive criticism for their lack of diversity on set and on screen. Mad Men, AMC’s extremely popular and wildly successful 1960’s period piece, is one example of this that went on for seven long seasons, taking us through all the twists and turns of the Civil Rights Era, as well as Hippie Culture.

Women on the show were portrayed as being less powerful than men, but they still managed to create inspirational figures such as Peggy and Joan, both of whom start small and end up extremely successful by the end of the show.

However, for the most part, and due to the explicit sexual nature of the show, many women in the main character Don Draper’s life are seen as disposable, and this is a major problem reflected in the story as well. Don has to learn how to treat people and how to respect himself in order to stay successful.

Although the last two seasons feature two African-American secretaries and a Jewish-American writer, many critics still bemoan the ratio of such characters to white characters.

I watched this show for the first time in 2014, directly before the final season. I was late to the party and truly enjoyed this show.  However, upon introducing it to my wife during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, we were both struck at the hedonism and arrogance of Draper. My wife's favorite characters were Peggy and Joan, who had to face much more societal adversity on their way to the top, at the same time always being looked down upon by most male characters.

While many critics still don’t appreciate the show’s view on women or inclusion of diversity in race, Mad Men has still gone down as an absolute classic. The show ended in 2014, and the more inclusive Bridgerton started in 2020, so maybe we have finally made some progress here.

Poster For Little Women Directed By Gretta Gerwig
Image Source: The Hollywood News

Why We Watch Period Pieces

Regardless of what makes you crave a historical drama, or how it holds your attention, one has to admit, they are everywhere these days. Owing to their success in amazing costumes, set design, as well as great performances, and attention to detail, these period pieces have come back into the spotlight after years of superhero movies and action flicks.

For me, period pieces are enticing because it allows me to travel into a time in which I haven't lived.  While no one can definitively say what the past was like, the period piece remains as important a part of history as it is entertainment. This means that viewers can simultaneously learn and use their imaginations while also enjoying themselves.

My favorite thing about period pieces is watching our modern performers in their roles as people from the past. While my wife enjoys the romance and the costumes of these productions, I myself love to see actors use older accents, embrace the sets, and make the most of their costumes for effect. To me, few films offer as much substance as a period piece can.

Since they are able to get causal fans into history, there is plenty of good stuff to say about this renaissance. As for the increased diversity in the movie business, small steps have been taken in the right direction. One can only hope these are the first steps in a long line of change to come. One can also hope that change comes soon and fast.

Joseph Poulos is a freelance writer from Michigan.

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