The Allure of Pastness: Watching Televised History
It seems like a uniquely rich moment for history: a host of gangsters, Vikings, and royals have stepped out of the past onto the small screen. These historical dramas freely pilfer from real personalities, documented material culture, and style drawn from the past, finessing historical details, amplifying threads of style, and fabricating an oddly persuasive picture of wholesale manufactured pasts. Heritage purists are perhaps always wary of history in the hands of Hollywood, and the most recent wave of serial dramas suggests that an aesthetically magnetic and decidedly non-critical vision of pastness has found a mass audience.
Perhaps the freshest wrinkle in the historical serial celebrates a completely contrived heritage that is all about style and makes no claim to substance. NBC’s Dracula, for instance, cuts its characters and premise from the rich literary and cinematic heritage of Dracula narratives. NBC’s version of the Count captures a familiar thread of the new histories in its focus on an impossibly stylish and beautiful Dracula (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), with the network TV carnality only implied (as opposed to his unabashedly carnal Showtime version of King Henry VIII). Fox has likewise seized on a literary character in Sleepy Hollow, which also has a beautiful man in stylish garb portraying a time-traveling Ichabod Crane. Like Dracula, Fox’s Sleepy Hollow refers to various real historical figures and events as well as historical literary subjects like the headless horseman.
More pseudo-historical series are on the horizon: AMC’s Revolutionary War drama Turn debuts in 2014 alongside the 1980’s computer start-up series Halt and Catch Fire; TNT’s noir gangster drama Mob City; and Michael Bay’s Black Sails introduces bodice-ripping pirates to the TV listings. These shows are among a host of aesthetically compelling series without especially lofty ambitions, instead playing with and capitalizing on our tendency to see history as style; that is, these shows appeal to the contemporary sense of history as visual, and they are not concerned with pedagogy or accuracy, which are perhaps irrelevant in contemporary popular culture.
This visual historicity in themes or form is not new as much as it has become increasingly more commonplace. The small screen historical serial borrows from those movies that Frederic Jameson described as “nostalgia films”: such movies evoke past materiality (he used the example of the 1970’s imagination of Cold War America in American Graffiti) and earlier art forms (Star Wars aspired to capture the feel of serial films). Nostalgia in this usage employs evocative iconography—such as the American Graffiti relics of 50’s culture like drive-ins and clothing–that replaces historical memory with an imagination of history.
To an archaeological eye, the allure of the televised past revolves around dense materiality that collectively evoke the guise of pastness. Television series aspire to satisfy viewers’ imaginations of what constitutes pastness in both material setting and narrative form; however, unlike living history museums, television viewers do not expect material or narrative authenticity. Indeed, watching a historical TV series is more akin to Disney World than Colonial Williamsburg: that is, we enter the Magic Kingdom anticipating a beautiful lie.
The fascination with such series may signal a wariness of academic histories that critically interrogate memory and provide unsettling pictures of our collective past. In a moment that Americans seem especially hostile to academicizing social life and heritage, some popular audiences may resist casting pastness as an alien quality or wielding history as a moral lesson. Deadwood creator David Milch admitted as much when he acknowledged that “I’ve had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate. … this is not a piece of nonfiction.” Instead, many people hope to find a past that entertains us with the universal dimensions of human experience: these series routinely play on love, family, and –in the case of premium cable—sexuality.
Television’s recent gravitation toward the historical is perhaps marked if not new, signaling the irrelevance of historical authenticity in popular discourse. Dracula, Sleepy Hollow, Game of Thrones, Ripper Street, and Atlantis all stitch together absolutely contrived narratives framed by material evocations of the past or threads of genuine historical narratives. The Dracula tale is especially rich because it might be set in nearly any historical period (in various tellings the dark lord has fought Billy the Kid and ventured to the year 3000 AD). NBC’s Dracula is set in a steampunk-accented London stocked with lush sets and gorgeous wardrobes that seem drawn more from Comic-Con than turn-of-the-century London. In this version, Vlad’s thick accent has been replaced by Rhys-Myers’ simulated American accent, as he has taken on the guise of an American capitalist undermining evil oil barons.
Even those series with some claim to historical authenticity weave contrived tales: the CW’s Reign, for instance, takes its material from actual people and events, but it may be even more made up than Dracula. Reign tells a tale of Mary Queen of Scots that reduces her to a high schooler hot for the French Dauphin Francis or his fictitious brother. BBC One’s The White Queen (subsequently shown in the US on Starz) documents the War of the Roses with a story of lust and witchcraft that The Independent’s Tom Sutcliffe indicates is “less historically plausible than Game of Thrones, despite being based on real events.” The Telegraph’s Gerard O’Donovan concluded the Plantagenet tale was devoid of “any note of the hardship, chill and squalor of life in 15th-century England,” and Jenny McCartney echoed those thoughts, arguing that “the visual inauthenticity of The White Queen is so glaring that it cannot be accidental. There appears to have been an executive decision to use the Wars of the Roses chiefly as a kind of glossy backdrop to scenes of vigorous sex and political intrigue, a televised Fifty Shades of Red and White.”
On one hand, these narratives may reveal that the past is an increasingly shallow stylization in our collective imagination. It may well be about visual style and have little to do with accuracy. A steampunk vampire history of the late-19th century may simply seek a fantasy plausibility while it stakes a tenuous claim to historical authenticity. In such a popular discourse, the distinctions between compelling scholarship, artfully massaged historical narratives, and fantastic if not reactionary pictures of heritage may be ambiguous if not irelevant distinctions. A past that is evaluated based merely on persuasive narrative—even if it is narrated by vampires and reanimated corpses—may reduce all heritage to an instinctive discourse outside the boundaries of accuracy and fakery.
On the other hand, though, this distorted representation of history may inevitably be the nature of popular media like film and television. Viewers know these shows are aesthetic spectacles that make no claim on authenticity—the mere premise of a steampunk vampire or the specter of a decapitated Hessian soldier proudly heralds its fakery even if it borrows some historical symbols employed in a cause that acknowledges itself as artifice. Conscious historical fantasies may not be pathological descents into reactionary heritage or a shallow heritage: they may simply be shallow TV shows.
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France II image from CW
Ichabod Crane image from Fox
White Queen image from Starz