Apr 272017
 
Turn Season Two

Love is in the air in the second season of Turn, including a new twist on the story of Benedict Arnold. However, I have to wonder why the producers decided to make a historical show other than to film people plotting and struggling with conflicted romantic entanglements while wearing fancy clothes. While little is known about the period of the Vikings, honestly, a lot is known about the American Revolution, but the producers do not seem very interested in the actual history. Read More…

Feb 022017
 
Black Sails-Season Three

This season deals with the occupation of Nassau by a British fleet led by Woodes Rogers. Or as I like to call it, The British Empire Strikes Back. At the end of last season, Jack Rackham and his crew had captured the Urca gold, brought it back to Nassau and then decided to invest it in a shared trust to defend the island against England. Interestingly, the season starts after Rackham and his partner Max had dealt with the understandably angry Flint and Vane when they had returned from bombarding Charleston into rubble, enabling the writers to avoid explaining how the confrontation was resolved without violence. As ever, the show is exciting. This season is fun, lots of fun, but frustrating, since the writers are mixing fantasy with large chunks of historical accuracy. Read More…

Nov 172016
 
The Last Kingdom-Season One

Based on the historical novel series The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, the series examines the Danish conquest of England from the perspective of Uhtred Ragnarson, a Saxon raised by Danes, who finds himself fighting for King Alfred of Wessex against the Great Heathen Army, a massive Danish army, which invaded England in 866 AD. The show’s greatest weakness is its portrayal of the Viking invaders as moderately bright thugs, rather than ruthless but skilled political operators. Still, it is an interesting examination of the time before there was an England, presenting a nation-building process that was bloody and not guaranteed. Read More…

Jun 022016
 
Turn-Season One

Realizing that the British have a spy in the rebel army, Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) recruits childhood friends Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), Anna Strong (Heather Lind) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) to form the Culper Ring in order to smuggle information from British-controlled New York to the rebel army. The show is an interesting look at the American Revolution but it would have worked better if it focused more on the spy ring and less on Woodhull’s romantic entanglements. Read More…

Mar 242016
 
Vikings Season Three

Showrunner Michael Hirst seems to have taken all of the names of historical figures from a couple of centuries and thrown them into a hat. Every season, he draws several names and writes a plot around them. It is entertaining, but we left accuracy town a long time ago. However, Vikings is a brilliant case study of a family of psychotic conquerors, and Season Three has enough betrayals to satisfy even the most discerning connoisseur. Read More…

Feb 182016
 
Black Sails-Season Two

None of this happened, but it has ooodles of violence, steamy sex scenes between physically perfect people who are good actors, wearing mostly period clothes, and the constant betrayals are fun to watch, so you can be entertained while pretending to learn something. Kind of.
Sadly, the writers clearly have no interest in the fascinating history of the golden age of piracy. The historical narrative that caused the increase in piracy is not complicated. Black Sails could have been Spartacus on ships, instead it is merely an enjoyable melodrama.
Nothing makes any sense but it is astonishingly melodramatic. However, I have to give credit, the plot moves along at a breakneck pace like a proper soap opera, where a new crisis appears just when the last one was resolved. Read More…

Dec 172015
 
Crossbones

Crossbones was a pirate series about Blackbeard that aired on NBC but was cancelled before its season ended. Those who suffered through it, like myself, understand why it was cancelled. It is less clear why it was greenlit, although John Malkovich’s involvement was probably a key factor. There may have been a more messed-up historical show, but I have not seen it. Read More…

Nov 192015
 
Texas Rising

Texas Rising, a miniseries about the Texan Revolution, is simply horrible, The writers’ claim to fame is that they produced Hatfields & McCoys, which was really good. This is not good. It is nowhere near good. It manages to be even worse than the recent Bonnie & Clyde miniseries. Admittedly, it gets the dates and places right. After watching this, a high school student would probably pass a history test but this is not meant for grown-ups. Read More…

Aug 272015
 
Vikings Season Two

Swiftly resolving the conflict between Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his brother Rollo (Clive Standen), the second season explores England as Ragnar comes into contact with Wessex, the most powerful English kingdom. At the same time, he also has to deal with repeated betrayals from his allies. Coming into his stride, Travis Fimmel creates a spellbinding if unlikeable alpha male. While Ragnar is fascinating to watch, it seems like showrunner Michael Hirst is just settling for a crowd-pleasing version of the Sopranos with boats and beards. Read More…

Jul 312015
 
Hell on Wheels Season Four-each season has less and less to do with reality.

Returning to Cheyenne with his Mormon wife and baby, Cullen Bohannon finds himself struggling to feed his family, and is reluctantly drawn into the struggle between Thomas Durant, head of the Union Pacific, and John Campbell, provisional governor of Wyoming, for control of Cheyenne and the railroad. Little on the show makes any sense, and this season achieves the dubious honor of being the most historically inaccurate season so far. Read More…

Sep 112014
 
Hell on Wheels Season Three-A bizarro-world version of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Yay, the writers finally read a book about the railroad, but their addition of a few historical facts to the fantasy land that had been built in the previous two seasons simply creates a bizarro-world version of the Transcontinental Railroad. The series essentially consists of Bohannon and Elam working together to save the railroad. Wow, if Cullen Bohannon was not so tough and did not have a faithful, almost silent, black sidekick, the railroad would not have been built. Read More…

May 292014
 
Black Sails Season One

Set twenty years before the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, which revolves around the search for a treasure that had been hidden by Captain Flint, Black Sails shows how Flint had found the treasure. A weird mix of history and fiction, the portrayal of the pirates as independent operators who are dependent on a kingpin of crime who fences their stolen cargoes and feeds them leads on potential targets weakens the show. While the overall story is silly, the ships are gorgeous, and the scenes at sea make up for the tawdry soap opera that fills most of the episodes. The series was fun, but it never really rose above a teenage boy’s hormone-driven fantasy of rock-hard abs, plentiful sex and admittedly cool battles. Read More…

Apr 102014
 
Boardwalk Empire Season Four

Another season of Boardwalk Empire, another season of watching characters die or leave the show. Mostly die. Actually, the number of dead or departed characters approached Game of Thrones-levels. This season, Chalkie White (Michael Kenneth Williams) faces the threat of Doctor Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), a gangster from Harlem, who plans to expand into Atlantic City, and is the first character on the show to question the social order that made African-Americans second-class citizens. Read More…

Jan 022014
 
The White Queen-The Coles Notes Version of the War of the Roses...with a double extra-sized portion of crying.

The series is based on The Cousins’ War, a series of books by Philippa Gregory, set during the War of the Roses (1455-1485). The amount of betrayals, uprisings, executions, pardons and further betrayals during the thirty years is honestly overwhelming. Two or three seasons would have probably been sufficient, but the series is a single season of ten episodes. Since there are only ten episodes and they are largely filled with scenes of women crying, the series is unable to explore the rich mix of factors that makes the period so interesting. To be fair, the series is accurate, at least when it comes to names, dates and general chronology, it just fails to ignite. The War of the Roses is fascinating, and I can understand George R.R. Martin’s obsession with the period. The king of the north, a mad king, dynastic marriages, constantly shifting alliances, and the ever-present threat of invasion from rival claimants to the throne who are living in exile, it’s all there in Game of Thrones. And it has dragons, freaking scary dragons. The White Queen has crying, lots of crying, and the sissiest magic I have ever seen. Read More…

Sep 192013
 
The Borgias Season Three

Oh, happy day, it has been cancelled, ending my misery.
Back in the day when there were only one or two historical-themed shows a year, I would have appreciated The Borgias more, but now there are Boardwalk Empire, Hell on Wheels, Mad Men, Copper, Vikings, and The White Queen, with Reign (about a teenage Mary, Queen of the Scots), Turn (the rebels’ spy ring during the American Revolution), Mob City (Frank Darabont’s show about Mickey Cohen, which I am really looking forward to), and Outlander (about a woman transported back in time from 1945 to Scotland during the time of Robert the Bruce) coming soon. Anyway, it is over, and I won’t miss it. The best that I can say is that viewers will have learned the basic facts about the Borgia Papacy. Except for everything that was made up by Jordan. Read More…

Jun 272013
 
Vikings Season One

The History Channel’s new show Vikings presents the exploits of Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel), who was the first Viking to raid England, discovering a wonderful place where the inhabitants conveniently store their silver and gold in remote buildings protected by unarmed men who pray to a dead god. One would think that Ragnar would return to a hero’s welcome, but Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne) resents a rival and schemes against him. Haraldson is needed as a villain since without him, Ragnar would be a brave explorer who goes to other countries that never did him any wrong, and kills their soldiers, steals their valuables, and takes people away as slaves. While the series whitewashes the thuggish side of the Vikings, it does pay tribute to the bravery of men who sailed in unknown waters to find a new land, not knowing if there actually was a land to the west. The Vikings are contemptuous of the Christians because their God seems unable to protect them. The religious aspect is critical, since otherwise it is just another cable show about tough men who live by their own moral code but are essentially bandits, stealing from those too weak to defend themselves. While the cast, especially Fimmel, are sufficiently charismatic, showrunner Michael Hirst’s writing slips in the second half of the season, as he appears to recycle themes from his previous show The Tudors. Read More…

Jun 062013
 
Spartacus Season Three

The third and final season is simply dull, as if all of the producers were more interested in their next projects. Admittedly, the season was always going to be challenging since it is common knowledge that all of the slaves were either killed or crucified. However, there are no records from the slaves’ side of the revolt, so the producers could have had the slaves say whatever they want, but the opportunity for a dialogue between slaves and masters was ignored in favor of more romantic subplots. Love must have been in the air in the writing room because every single character was involved in a romantic subplot. Worse, the Romans were blander than Wonderbread. All of the characters with moral complexity have died, and the new Roman characters are merely cardboard villains, and flimsy cardboard at that. While the leaders of the rebellion were a blank slate, a great deal of information was recorded about Marcus Crassus, the main Roman antagonist, and the writers clearly tossed most of it in the rubbish bin. In fact, many viewers probably finished the season with the impression that the slave rebellion was defeated single-handedly by Crassus. Once a proud, stimulating show, Spartacus has become a flaccid imitation of its former self. A depressing end for such an amazing series. Read More…

Feb 142013
 
Boardwalk Empire: Season Three

Following the dramatic end to the civil war for control for Atlantic City, the series has expanded its focus outwards, devoting more attention to the underworld in Chicago and New York, as well as the corruption in the national capital. Season three starts in 1923, roughly a year after the end of season two. Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has gained firm control of Atlantic City. Pressured by his government contacts to sell to a single customer to reduce attention, Nucky decides that Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) will be his sole customer, which leads to war with Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), an astonishingly thin-skinned gangster from New York, who resents Rothstein’s new monopoly.
Read More…

Dec 132012
 
Hell on Wheels Season Two: Soap Opera on Rails

Most people turn up their noses at soap operas like General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, Dallas or Dynasty, but still want to become involved in the lives of people who are more attractive and lead more exciting lives. For those whose tastes run to Westerns, Hell on Wheels satisfies that desire. It certainly does not satisfy any desire to learn the history of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. To be fair, it is a very good soap opera.
Two competing railroads, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, raced to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The producers made the logical decision to focus on the Union Pacific, but he railroad was not built by an ex-Confederate hunting the murderer of his wife, and the plucky widow of the original surveyor, who would be able to finish the railroad on schedule if they ever stop squabbling and accept their love for each other. Read More…

Nov 082012
 
Copper: BBC America's grit-free look at New York City during the Civil War.

The nation is still at war, rich speculators profit on the war, and racial tensions are high. If only the show was as good as it sounds. Billed as a gritty look at the early days of law enforcement, the only grit in Copper is applied to the extras pretending to be beggars. While the low-budget production values associated with the BBC add to the charm of Doctor Who, the same can not be said for Copper. The over-crowded slums look empty, the boxers in the bare-knuckle boxing matches are sweaty but otherwise unbloodied, and the violence seems tame for a cable show. Read More…

Aug 162012
 
The Borgias-Season Two

Somebody finally explained the concept of showrunner to Neil Jordan, creator and executive producer of Showtime’s The Borgias, who seems to be stepping back in season two. After writing every single episode in the first season, he only wrote the first half of the second season. Thanks to the absence of his stilted, heavy-handed scripts, scenes are allowed to develop, so the episodes do not linger in a swamp of over-acting, lifeless action and sex scenes that would bore a fourteen-year-old. Finally taking advantage of the art, sculpture and architecture of Italy, the show has become a visual treat. While I respect Jordan’s dedication and exhausting hours, the show will be the better for him stepping back. Way back. Read More…

Apr 222012
 
Spartacus: Vengeance

The second season of Spartacus took a few episodes to get its groove back but it had a stellar finish. When I heard that Liam McIntyre would take over the role of Spartacus after Andy Whitfield’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I wondered if the show would be the same. While McIntyre does not have Whitfield’s mojo, there is nothing wrong with the actor, and he starts to grow into his role as the series progresses, but I realized that the show might not have worked without Whitfield. Read More…

Mar 302012
 
Hell on Wheels

On the surface, Hell on Wheels is about a Confederate veteran who is hunting the Union soldiers who had killed his wife during the American Civil War. Yawn. However, the show uses the construction of the transcontinental railroad to examine the many problems facing a recently re-united nation: the challenge of making former enemies live together in peace; the expansion of the railroad into the lands of Native Americans, who rightly feared that it meant the end of their way of life; and the need to integrate newly freed slaves into a world that was still controlled by white men. Hell on Wheels clearly has ambition but does not always achieve its goals. Read More…

Jan 082012
 
Boardwalk Empire Season Two

Season Two of Boardwalk Empire balances the fine line between an entertaining soap opera set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City and a chronicle of bootlegging and the rapid social changes that made the 1920s such a turbulent period in American history. Read More…

May 162011
 
The Borgias Season One

There is a new show that is surprisingly addictive due to its generous helpings of incest, intrigue, and shifting political alliances. Children are showered with love until they are old enough to be used to cement political alliances between noble families. At one point, an adolescent girl is married to a powerful yet brutal lord who treats her as a brood mare, rather than as a lover and partner. Unfortunately, this description fits HBO’s Game of Thrones, not Showtime’s The Borgias. Read More…

Mar 202011
 
Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Spartacus: Blood and Sand may be a sex-and-sandal series but it is worth watching. It would be unfair to compare the series to HBO’s Rome, since the producers clearly intended to emphasize entertainment, not historical accuracy. At first glance, Spartacus probably looks like a trashy soap opera about gay bodybuilders. However, it is surprisingly entertaining and even more surprising, good history. Read More…

Nov 102010
 
Boardwalk Empire Season One

I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by the much-touted pilot episode directed by Martin Scorsese, but after watching a few more episodes, the series is growing on me. I would have thought that a period gangster series would be right up Scorsese’s alley, but I just realized that I have come to expect a certain style from HBO and Scorsese’s lack of a sense of humor dragged down the pilot. Although I originally checked the show out because of the gangsters and Prohibition, I am more interested in its portrayal of the time. Read More…