I’m a big history nerd. I’m not only a history major, but someone who collects and wears historical clothes, who owns figurines of historical figures, who collects books on my favorite parts of history, and who played history games throughout my entire childhood. Studying history has always been a huge part of my identity, and one I’m still happy to include in my life today. But it’s probably time to admit it: I hate historical TV shows. As a history geek, I should love them, but it’s hard for me to stomach a single one.
These shows forget that people in the past did, in fact, have fun.
I have one main reason, and it’s that these shows are straight-up boring. The lighting is too dark, the costumes too beige and ugly, and every word of dialogue is spoken in a raspy whisper. Everything is so bleak it’s almost impossible to follow. Try watching The Medici or The Tudors. I have difficulty figuring out anything that’s going on. And don’t get me started on the lighting in The Crown.
And trust me, I won’t hear the excuse that real life was just as bleak back then. As a keen student of historical costuming, I know that a lot of historical clothing was bright, extravagant, and sometimes just ridiculous. I admit it’s not the biggest issue, but it still rubs me the wrong way. I feel like these shows forget that people in the past did, in fact, have fun occasionally. You rarely see any entertainment or festivities in these shows, unless they’re doomed to go horribly wrong. You almost never see any characters genuinely laugh in these shows. Sure, living in the past was terrible in a lot of ways, but people still retained a sense of humor.
I’ll give you an example. I once made the horrible mistake of attempting to watch Da Vinci’s Demons, which loosely follows the life of Leonardo da Vinci, and encapsulates everything I hate about historical television. The show portrays Leonardo as a tortured, edgy womanizer, despite the fact that he was almost certainly gay and, by all accounts, a very pleasant person. Throughout the show, he almost exclusively wears dark, tattered shirts and dusty trousers, whereas the historical Leonardo wore brightly-colored tunics and tights. It might sound ridiculous to the modern viewer, but personally, I think we should acknowledge the absurdity of history. And let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easier to relate to people who don’t take themselves too seriously.
There’s also a lot of unnecessary drama in historical TV shows. I’ll admit, this trend strikes me as odd because there’s already so much drama in real history. Shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, The Last Kingdom, and The Medici like to make a big deal out of political battles and sex scandals, and rarely imbue these plot lines with any humor or humanity. Drama is important for entertainment’s sake, but we can still try and make the drama seem somewhat human. Most relationships aren’t built on stolen glances and steamy affairs. Why not portray these love stories with affection, awkwardness, and a tiny bit of down-to-earth humanity?
History isn’t all epic battles and heaving bosoms, a lot of it is everyday life.
Even the grand, epic battles are a little too dramatic for my sake. They ignore the disease, the squalor, and the sheer tedium of real-life battles. It might not be fun to acknowledge the unglamorous parts of history, but it makes for better television. If we’re going to relate to these historical figures, we need to at least see them as human.
Most historical TV shows seem totally unwilling to have any fun with history. They refuse to acknowledge that along with the drama and sadness of history, there’s also comedy and absurdity and awkwardness. Historical people were real human beings. Sometimes they wore ridiculous outfits, joked around with each other, and made awkward mistakes. History isn’t all epic battles and heaving bosoms, a lot of it is everyday life. I certainly don’t think these shows are evil, but they do make history feel so much more distant and detached than it really is.
We should remember that history has plenty of dimensions, some good and some bad, some funny and some serious, some totally normal and some downright weird. It doesn’t help to glamorize or romanticize history, but it doesn’t help to dull it down either. Historical figures were people too, and our television should at least recognize them as such. Besides, it’s more fun that way anyway.
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