Costumes, Swords, & Blood – What to Make of TVs New Crop of Historical Dramas

Maybe it was the surprise hit “Spartacus,” or “The Tudors,” or “Rome.” More likely, it was “Game of Thrones,” which in turn probably gained credence from “Lord of the Rings.”

Whatever the root cause, cable stations are creating a new brand of historical melodrama. We can list all the titles that fall under the genre. “Outlander,” though, is the only real exceptional one, and only for its female narrative. Each also shares some central focal points.

Action
Sex
Costumes
A fixation on the ruling class

Now the last bullet is hardly exclusive to historical drama. The genre almost always features powerful people doing powerful things, “Gilmore Girls” and similar fare excluded. That considered, this current guts-and-glory trend is still emergent and unique. Closest thing we had in the 90’s was Xena, Hercules, and whatever spin-offs or rip-offs entered the void after a few seasons.

Even more notable, today’s sword bearers take themselves seriously. The nearest resemblance to farce is the ludicrous “The Bastard Executioner,” but no one is really sure about that one.

Which unto itself is fair. “The Bastard Executioner,” if anything, is commendable for lacking the pretense of other shows. From it’s metal music intro to its over-the-top torture, the FX original is ludicrous and gross. Details include an exceptionally attractive female getting wooden-horsed, dismemberment, and a rapey castle steward. It’s obvious there’s a calculated appeal towards geeks equal parts heteronormative and sexually frustrated. But much as “The Bastard Executioner” tries to shock, its prime import is irreverence.

While not for everyone, including me, “The Bastard Executioner” highlights some important points about dramas like “Vikings” or the superior “The Last Kingdom.” Namely, that historical dramatization will always be more a reflection of the present than a glimpse into the past. There’s historicity, but only in tangibles like costume, makeup, and setting.

Even then, liberties exist: there’s not a bonnet in sight in “The Tudors.” Mentions of pagan gods or castles pepper dialogue, yes. Still, it functionally asserts and demonstrates parallels to our era. Strip away the veneer and it’s evident our heroes and antagonists are modern, if not progressive. Paradoxically, the most prominent exception, and example, is “Wolf Hall.”

Readers may believe I’m lambasting the research behind these shows. I’m not. Rather, I’m recognizing the medium’s limitations. A lot of effort goes into these pictures. And overall, most are entertaining and have superior production values. Watching them, however, it seems apparent the genre’s writers only adhere to TV norms because they are risk averse. Producing a costume drama is enough of a gamble. Challenging viewer’s preconceptions is out of the question for now.

 

John Lion: John is a freelance writer with a passion for everything TV. A fan of thrillers and suspense, he also enjoys screwball comedies like Louie and Venture Bros. John has a particular fascination with TV's impact on public awareness and concerns. Email him at johnloeblion@gmail.com.