Summary

  • Historical TV shows offer viewers a chance to witness pivotal events and fascinating characters in human history, combining both entertainment and education.
  • The best historical TV shows strike a balance between authenticity and entertainment, recontextualizing important events and humanizing historical figures.
  • Historical shows can take various tones, from dramatic to comedic, but the best ones are truly unforgettable and have the ability to transport viewers to a different era.

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Whether they’re set in the ancient world or the 20th century, historical TV shows have always been a popular genre. They offer viewers a chance to witness some of the most pivotal events and fascinating characters in human history, and they can feel like a time capsule from a different era. Historical shows can be just as educational as they are entertaining. They are often judged based on their historical accuracy, although some shows prefer to bend the truth if it makes for a more compelling story. The best historical TV shows are able to strike a balance between authenticity and entertainment, and a key part of that is choosing the subject carefully.

Truth can be stranger than fiction, and historical shows are made all the more fascinating when viewers know that the events on screen actually happened in real life. Even those without a keen interest in history can empathize with historical figures on a human level, and the best historical TV shows can recontextualize important events, transferring them back from quasi-mythical stories into reality. Historical shows don’t always need to stick to drama though, and there are some great examples of shows which take a comedic approach to their subjects, humanizing them even further in some cases. Whatever their tone, the best TV shows based on real history can be truly unforgettable.

10 Gentleman Jack (2019-2022)

The life of Anne Lister

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle laughing together in Gentleman Jack.

Gentleman Jack‘s effortless charm and fourth-wall breaking swagger is a breath of fresh air.

Gentleman Jack tells the story of Georgian-era landowner, industrialist, and prolific diarist Anne Lister. Suranne Jones is incredible as the titular Lister, striding about the show’s rolling moors and draughty English manors with supreme gravitas. Lister has been dubbed “the first modern lesbian” for the revelations in her diary, and Gentleman Jack is a celebration of an often-ignored era of queer history. Period dramas, especially Regency-era romances, have a tendency to be stuffy and uptight, but Gentleman Jack‘s effortless charm and fourth-wall breaking swagger is a breath of fresh air. It’s a bracing combination of Jane Austen and Fleabag that manages to forge its own unique path.

9 Rome (2005-2007)

The forging of the Roman Empire

Julius Caesar rides a white horse past cheering soldiers in Rome.

Rome follows the epic story of political upheaval in Ancient Rome through the lens of personal experience. Caesar, Antony, and Octavian are all major players, but so too are Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, two common soldiers. Long before Game of Thrones, Rome was both lauded and reviled for its graphic depictions of violence and sex. There are further similarities too, especially the brutality of the battles and the underhanded political maneuvering. The real disappointment is that Rome only lasted for two seasons. Ancient Rome is the perfect setting for a prestige drama series, rich in scandal, turmoil, and blood. Rome‘s incredible visual design brings this era into sharp focus.

8 Our Flag Means Death (2022-)

18th-century piracy

Our Flag Means Death

Release Date
March 3, 2022

Cast
Rhys Darby, Con O’Neill, Rory Kinnear, Matthew Maher, Samson Kayo, Ewen Bremner, David Fane, Nathan Foad, Taika Waititi, Guz Khan, Vico Ortiz, Joel Fry, Kristian Nairn

Streaming Service(s)
HBO Max

Our Flag Means Death seems like a ridiculous premise – a wealthy landowner ditches his comfortable lifestyle to become a pirate – but it’s based on a true story. Stede Bonnet was a real pirate in the early 18th century, and he did cross paths with Blackbeard. Our Flag Means Death uses their mysterious relationship as the backdrop for a comedic tale of swashbuckling and misadventure. Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi are a delightful comedy duo, but they also make for an unexpectedly stirring romantic pair. The rest of the crew are a charming cast of misfits, making Our Flag Means Death a brilliant workplace sitcom on a pirate ship.

7 A Small Light (2023)

The Dutch woman who protected Anne Frank’s family

Bel Powley as Miep Gies Looking Sideways in A Small Light

One of the lesser-known sides to Anne Frank’s story is the life of Miep Gies, the Dutch secretary who sheltered the Frank family in her home during the Holocaust. In A Small Light, Bel Powley shines as Gies, a remarkable woman who rejected the title of hero. With only eight episodes, A Small Light delivers a more powerful impact than many shows which run for years. This is down to the incredible weight of the source material, but also the show’s ability to connect with a modern audience. Most people have some knowledge of the story of Anne Frank, but rarely has it ever been drawn in such vivid detail.

6 The Borgias (2011-2013)

Pope Alexander VI’s brutal reign

pope-087

Jeremy Irons is the sinister Rodrigo Borgia in The Borgias, a story of murder, blackmail and war in 15th century Italy. Borgia bribes his way into the position of Pope, but he and his power-hungry family will not stop until they cement their status as the de facto leaders of the nation. The Borgias are essentially a crime family, but their business is the consolidation of power in the Catholic Church. Irons is outstanding as the patriarch, but the entire cast is uniformly superb. The Borgias unfurls its scandalous drama at an even pace, drawing the viewer steadily into a treacherous world rife with danger.

5 The Crown (2016-2023)

Elizabeth II and the British royal family

The Crown

Release Date
November 4, 2016

Cast
Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Imelda Staunton, Matt Smith, Tobias Menzies, Jonathan Pryce, Vanessa Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter, Lesley Manville, Victoria Hamilton, Marion Bailey, Marcia Warren

Distributor
Netflix

The Crown has been one of the most popular historical dramas of the last decade, drawing back the curtain on the British royal family. The first season stars Claire Foy as Elizabeth when she becomes queen in the 1940s, but her role is recast multiple times throughout the series as it chronicles the entire stretch of Elizabeth’s life. The Crown is at its best when it shows the surreal dichotomy between private emotion and public appearance. Everything is about maintaining power, and more importantly, maintaining poise. The Crown‘s sixth season has faced backlash, but this is unlikely to tarnish the reputation of a show which has received ten Emmy Awards.

4 The Great (2020-2023)

Catherine the Great in 18th century Russia

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great on The Great

The Great

Release Date
May 15, 2020

Cast
Sacha Dhawan, Adam Godley, Richard Pyros, Belinda Bromilow, Elle Fanning, Gwilym Lee, Sebastian de Souza, Phoebe Fox, Charity Wakefield, Nicholas Hoult, Douglas Hodge, Bayo Gbadamosi

Streaming Service(s)
Hulu

Elle Fanning is a comedic revelation as Catherine the Great, although the show offers much more than humor. The Great is proudly ambivalent toward historical accuracy, often taking drastic departures from the truth in favor of whatever could be more entertaining. Many of the characters in The Great are based on real people, but what those characters do is not always consistent with history. However, The Great‘s blasé attitude toward the facts allows it to position itself as a more relevant take-down of contemporary political ineptitude. The Great is a rough approximation of what Veep would look like in the palatial surroundings of the Russian nobility, complete with squabbling advisors.

3 Vikings (2013-2020)

The sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok

Ragnar covered in blood in Vikings Season 2

Vikings

Release Date
March 3, 2013

Cast
Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick, Gustaf Skarsgård, Jessalyn Gilsig, Clive Standen, George Blagden

Streaming Service(s)
Amazon Prime Video, Hulu

Vikings is a re-telling of stories passed down through generations of Norse fables. Due to the oral tradition, it’s difficult to sort the fiction from the mythology in the life of Ragnar Lodbrok. There are some sources that point to his existence, but he has become more of a legendary figure, like King Arthur. Even if Vikings is based on myth, it has a fierce dedication to historical authenticity, and the costumes, props, and sets contribute to an immersive feeling. Ragnar starts out as a farmer, but through his conquests he becomes a revered warrior. Vikings was so popular that it spawned a sequel series, Vikings: Valhalla.

2 Band Of Brothers (2001)

Easy Company in World War II

Band of Brothers

Release Date
September 9, 2001

Cast
Kirk Acevedo, Eion Bailey, Michael Cudlitz, Dale Dye, Scott Grimes, Frank John Hughes, Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston, James Madio, Neal McDonough, David Schwimmer, Richard Speight Jr., Donnie Wahlberg, Matthew Settle, Rick Warden, Marc Warren, Dexter Fletcher, Colin Hanks, Ross McCall

Streaming Service(s)
Hulu, HBO Max

Produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers was prestige television before the term even existed. The series follows the lives of Easy Company throughout the war as they take part in seismic events such as the Battle of the Bulge and the Allied invasion of Normandy. The battle scenes are as thrilling as Saving Private Ryan, but Band of Brothers has more time to delve into the lives of its characters. The show is interspersed with interviews of the real members of Easy Company, which serves as a reminder that the unbelievable events on screen really took place. Simply put, Band of Brothers changed TV forever.

1 Chernobyl (2019)

The Chernobyl disaster

Two men looking on at the Chernobyl plant explosion in Chernobyl.

Chernobyl

Release Date
June 3, 2019

Cast
Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris

Streaming Service(s)
HBO Max

The HBO miniseries Chernobyl is a compulsive disaster with horrifyingly sharp clarity. The Chernobyl disaster plays out as a political thriller, a deeply human drama, and a horror series all at once. The fact that Chernobyl can balance these disparate ideas so masterfully is remarkable. It’s an apocalyptic tale that actually took place in the 1980s, when all of humanity’s greatest fears came to Earth. The cinematography is overwhelmingly bleak, but it occasionally gives way to vibrant bursts of blood and bile, with staggering effect. Chernobyl is the perfect example of the capabilities of historical drama, rendering unthinkable events in minute detail. Its five episodes live long in the memory.

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