The Allure of Pastness: Watching Televised History

The new Dracula has a significantly different look than Bela Lugosi and Nosferatu (image NBC)

The new Dracula has a significantly different look than Bela Lugosi and Nosferatu (image NBC)

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.

After playing Elvis and Henry VIII in other historical serials, Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes a dapper Vlad the Impaler (image NBC).

After playing Elvis and Henry VIII in other historical serials, Jonathan Rhys Meyers makes a dapper Vlad the Impaler (image NBC).

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.

Ichabod Crane has traveled across time but inevitably ends up in a graveyard (image Fox).

Ichabod Crane has traveled across time but inevitably ends up in a graveyard (image Fox).

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.

Frances II was a short 14-year-old when he married Mary, Queen of Scots in 1558, but he is quite stylish on Reign (image CW).

Frances II was a short 14-year-old when he married Mary, Queen of Scots in 1558, but he is quite stylish on Reign (image CW).

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.”

The White Queen's Elizabeth embraces the trappings of royalty (image Starz).

The White Queen’s Elizabeth embraces the trappings of royalty (image Starz).

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.


Philip Drake

2003 “Mortgaged to music”: new retro movies in 1990s Hollywood cinema.  In Memory and Popular Film, Paul Grainge ed., 183-201.  Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK.

Anne Friedberg

1991 Les Flaneurs du Mal(l): Cinema and the Postmodern ConditionPMLA 106(3):419-31.  (subscription access)

Cornelius Holtorf

2013 On Pastness: A Reconsideration of Materiality in Archaeological Object Authenticity.  Anthropological Quarterly 86(2):427-443.

Linda Hutcheon

1998 Irony, Nostalgia, and the PostmodernMethods for the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory 6:189-207.

Fredric Jameson

1991 Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  Duke, Durham, North Carolina.

Alison J. McIntosh and Richard C. Prentice

1999 Affirming authenticity: Consuming cultural heritage.  Annals of Tourism Research 26(3):589–612.  (subscription access)


Dracula image and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers image from NBC

France II image from CW

Ichabod Crane image from Fox

White Queen image from Starz

Posted on November 19, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Interesting questions about western society and our attitudes towards the past and heritage. You could lump Once Upon a Time in there as well in that it seems to feed off the nostalgia of childhood. I also see the prevalence of these television shows as a media based reaction to the success of one or two well executed, successful programs. Like any trend I think it will run its course over the next few years.

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