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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. Read the rest of this entry