Oct 082015
The Last Kingdom Trailer

Yet another historical series starts this week. Although the two shows are on different networks, The Last Kingdom is a kind of sequel to Vikings, which presents the adventures of Ragnar Lodbrok, since Ragnar’s sons lead the initial invasion that conquers all of England, except for Wessex. Alfred, king of Wessex and a devoted Christian, is determined to drive the pagan Vikings out of England and unify the kingdoms into a single English nation. Despite his fierce faith, Alfred has a frail body, so he reluctantly relies on Uhtred Ragnarson, a Saxon who was raised by Danes, to lead his armies. Mistrusted by most Saxons because he openly worships the Norse gods, Uhtred struggles as much with his own loyalties as with his many enemies. Read More…

Jul 192015
Hell on Wheels Season Five Trailer

Following in the footsteps of Breaking Bad, Hell on Wheels’ fifth and final season will be broken into two parts. The first part premieres tonight. Cullen Bohannon has left the Union Pacific and joined the Central Pacific as its new chief engineer, while he searches for his missing wife and son. It is a silly plotline, but I am happy that the show will examine the Central Pacific. Read More…

Jan 242015
Black Sails Season Two Trailer

Season Two of Black Sails starts tonight. I enjoyed the first season, so I am looking forward to the new season. Judging by the trailer, there will be even nastier pirates, and more background. One of my main criticisms about the first season was the lack of historical context, there was no explanation of why hundreds of sailors suddenly decided to go into the lucrative yet risky business of attacking armed ships to steal their cargoes. In addition, the series will expand the pirates’ world to include London and the American colonies, in particular South Carolina, which is important since the real pirates were part of a much larger economic ecosystem than Nassau.
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Sep 062014
Boardwalk Empire Season Five Trailer

The first episode of the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire airs tomorrow night. While previous seasons had been separated by a year or a year and a half, the fifth season begins in 1931, seven years after the end of season four. Prohibition is clearly coming to an end, and Nucky Thompson is preparing to adjust to the disappearance of the juicy profits from selling illegal alcohol, while Charles “Lucky” Luciano is trying to organize the various gangs into a national commission. Eight episodes seems a bit short given the number of storylines: Chalky White is on the run; Nelson Van Alden is hiding in Chicago; Al Capone has gained control of Chicago; Lucky Luciano seems to have become a powerful gangster; and Nucky is trying to set up new connections in Havana. Hopefully, the final season will maintain the level of the last two seasons, which were my favorites, but it will still be sad to see the series end. Read More…

May 292014
Crossbones Season One Trailer

I hope that people like pirates because Crossbones is coming out roughly a month after Black Sails finished. Crossbones is the vision of Neil Cross, who worked on Spooks (MI-5 in the United States) and created Luther. I have not seen Spooks, but I am watching Luther now, and I am loving its moral complexity, where the lead characters wrestle with the gap between the law and their own moral codes. John Molkovich plays Edward Teach, the unofficial leader of the pirate colony at Nassau. Richard Coyle is Tom Lowe, an English secret agent sent in to the pirate republic to kill Blackbeard, the leader of the pirates, so presumably the assassin will become conflicted as he grows to admire the pirate leader. Black Sails was fun but far from amazing, so there is room for another pirate show. My main concern is that it is shown on NBC, rather than one of the cable networks. Read More…

Apr 032014
Turn Season One Trailer

AMC’s Turn is the newest entrant into the crowded field of historical dramas, although it is unlikely that AMC’s other show Hell on Wheels will last another season, since it was barely renewed last year, so AMC undoubtedly hopes that Turn, which starts this Sunday, will work. The series is set in 1778, when the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) had reached a stalemate following the surrender of a British army at Saratoga the previous fall. By that stage of the war, the British were stuck inside New York City, while the rebel army could not force its way inside. Turn presents the exploits of the Culper Spy Ring, which was organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, after General George Washington, commander of the Revolutionary army, asked him to recruit spies to gather information about the British. Read More…

Feb 272014
Vikings Season Two Trailer

In the first season, Ragnar Lodbruk (Travis Fimmel) became the first Viking to reach England, finding a wonderful place where the locals conveniently store their gold in houses of worship guarded by unarmed men who pray to a dead god. After defeating his rival, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne), Ragnar should have been satisfied, but while performing a mission for King Horik (Donal Logue), he was seduced by Princess Aslaug, and his ambitious brother Rollo (Clive Standen) was seduced by Horik’s rival. It appears that this season will deal with two issues: the brothers will resolve their differences, presumably with sharp objects, and Ragnar will have to reconcile two families. While squabbling Vikings expressing their feelings by trying to kill each other will undoubtedly be entertaining, I am looking forward to Ragnar’s new English opponent, King Egbert of Wessex, the most powerful of the English kingdoms. Read More…

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Jan 232014
Black Sails Season One Trailer

Starz’s new series, Black Sails, is set twenty years before the events of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which my generation probably read during high school and forgot about. The series takes place near the end of the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730). Following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), thousands of British privateers decided to adjust their business model, and attack ships from all nations, not just Britain’s enemy Spain. Black Sails is a weird mix of history and fiction, since the lead character, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) is taken from a novel. However, there are quite a few historical figures in the show, including Charles Vane, Anne Bonney and Calico Jack Rackam, but Edward Teach, better-known as Blackbeard, is missing. It is Starz, so there should be a fair amount of sweaty flesh, um, for those who like that kind of thing. Read More…

Dec 052013
Bonnie and Clyde Trailer

Inspired by the success of its miniseries Hatfields and McCoys (2012), the History Channel has teamed up with Lifetime (both are part of the A & E network) to produce a two-part miniseries on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who robbed banks and grocery stores during the Public Enemy Era (1933-1935). Read More…

Nov 282013
Mob City Trailer

Mob City, Frank Darabont’s new series on TNT, will portray the decades-long war between Mickey Cohen and LAPD Chief William Parker. The series begins in 1947, when Cohen was Bugsy Siegel’s right-hand man. Siegel is unlikely to make it through the first season since he was killed in 1947 after wasting millions of Syndicate money on the Flamingo Casino in Las Vegas. Mob City will be an interesting companion to Boardwalk Empire, covering the period after everything had settled in Chicago and New York. Read More…

Sep 052013
Boardwalk Empire season Four Trailer

Eight months have passed since the climatic end of the third season, and while the series officially focuses on the life of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), it appears that the show will continue to explore the underworld in Chicago and New York City. Although Thompson’s evolution from corrupt politician to full-fledged gangster is interesting, all of the action took place in Chicago and New York City, not Atlantic City, so I welcome the increasing attention to the underworld outside of New Jersey.
In New York, following his betrayal by Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Charles Luciano (Vincent Piazza) works for Joe Masseria, even though Luciano loathed Masseria’s old-fashioned mindset and distrust of all non-Sicilians, especially Luciano’s partner Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef). Nucky may have eliminated the threat of Gyp Rosetti (Bobby Cannavale), a New York-based gangster, but he made enemies of both Rothstein and Masseria. It seems likely that they will seek revenge. 1924 was a tumultuous year in Chicago, since Johnny Torrio (Greg Antonacci) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) expanded into Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, and the season will introduce Capone’s brothers Frank and Ralph. Aside from Chicago and New York, the show will spend more time in the African-American community. Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) has been rewarded for his support of Nucky during the war against Rosetti with permission to build a high-class club for blacks on the Boardwalk. However, Dr. Valentin Narcisse (played by Jeffrey Wright), a gangster who controls Harlem, will be muscling in on Chalkie’s territory.
Boardwalk Empire has managed to get better every season, so I have high hopes for this season.
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Aug 082013
The White Queen Season One Trailer

BBC’s new series The White Queen starts next week. It is based on The Cousins’ War, a series of books by Philippa Gregory, set during the War of the Roses. What is the War of the Roses you ask? Most people probably know it as the source material for George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for HBO’s series Game of Thrones. The two most powerful families in England, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, struggled for the English throne from 1455 to 1487. York used the white rose as its symbol while Lancaster used the red rose as its symbol, hence the name War of the Roses. After reading a bit about the War of the Roses, I now know why Martin gave each house a motto, like “Winter is coming”; “A Lannister always pays his debts” and “We do not sow”, how else do you tell them apart? If people think that Game of Thrones is complicated, it is much, much simpler than the real War of the Roses, since there was a lot, really a lot of intermarriage between the major families. In theory, the arranged marriages between rival families was intended to bind them together, but in practice its main result was that cousins frequently faced each other on the battlefield and many daughters spent lonely lives among families who had killed their relatives. Despite the regrettable decision to not include dragons or white walkers, The White Queen offers a look at a tumultuous period of English history. Read More…

Aug 012013
Hell on Wheels Season Three Trailer

Season Two was a definite improvement over the first season, but the departure of both Joe and Tony Gayton, the creators, and John Shiban, the show runner, right after the series was renewed for a third season threatened to prematurely end the show. Fortunately, John Wirth, who had previously produced Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, came on board. Since roughly half the cast were killed off in the previous season, he has a tremendous opportunity to move the focus of the show away from a soap opera with three separate love triangles to the actual construction of the railroad.

The first season was very uneven, and while the second season was much more enjoyable, the writers were far from faithful to the historical record, inventing robber gangs and an attack by the Sioux that seemed to be a dress rehearsal for the Little Bighorn. Hopefully, the third season will keep the improved writing but actually follow what is written in the history books and present the construction of the transcontinental railroad as the mind-boggling technical achievement that it was. Read More…

Jun 202013
Copper Season Two Trailer

Season Two of Copper will start on June 23. The weakness of the first season was its fixation with the characters’ personal lives, making it a show about people playing dress-up in New York City during the American Civil War, instead of an actual police show. Since the only characters with any spark of life are Annie Reilly (Kiara Glasco), a twelve-year-old former child prostitute and the second-creepiest female character on TV, and Robert Morehouse (Kyle Schmid), who spends every moment of every day lounging around drinking, the producers have wisely decided to spice up the cast. Donal Logue has been brought in as Brigadier General Brendan Donovan, a ward boss and trusted lieutenant of Boss Tweed, boss of the Democratic Party political machine in New York. Aside from Logue, two former OZ cast-members will join the show. Eamonn Walker will play famed abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglas, and Lee Tergeson will play a criminal mastermind. Most important, they recruited Andrew Howard, whose ‘Bad’ Frank Phillips, Pinkerton and bounty hunter, was the standout character on last year’s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries. Set before President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the season will deal with the recent passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and political corruption, while hopefully presenting some of the lawlessness that Five Points was famous for. Read More…

Apr 112013
The Borgias Season Three Trailer

The tag line of season three of The Borgias is “give in to sin”. Judging by the trailer, the sin is incest, which puts the series where Game of Thrones was in its first episode.

The previous season had ended in a cliffhanger as Cardinal della Rovere’s plotting against the pope had finally achieved results, although given the involvement of a key character, it seems unlikely that death will result. While the machinations between the papacy and the city-states for control of Italy will undoubtedly continue, hopefully this season will deal with the controversial Papal Bulls, which gave the Spanish king authority to enslave the inhabitants of the New World, what we now call Latin America and the Caribbean, if they refused to convert to Christianity.

Admittedly, last season was an improvement over the first season, especially the scenes with Machiavelli and the religious zealot Savonarola, so my hopes for the third season are relatively high. Anyway, season three is starting next week. Read More…

Mar 142013

History Channel’s new series Vikings has just started, and it looks good so far. To be honest, it is worth watching just for the introduction of early navigation and shipbuilding techniques. The second episode shows the terror of being lost in the mist in the middle of the ocean with no idea of which direction is land, or if there even is land nearby. The lead character, Ragnar Lothbrok, is a famous Norse hero, and Travis Fimmel plays him as a visionary driven to find new lands and kill and loot their inhabitants. I have only seen two episodes but Gabriel Byrne’s Earl Haraldson is a deliciously paranoid and small-minded villain.
Following the surprisingly good Hatfields and McCoys miniseries in 2012, this is History’s first scripted series, making it a player in a crowded field that includes HBO, Starz, AMC, Showtime and the BBC. Nice to see some actual history on the History Channel, instead of the usual Pawn Stars, Ice Truckers and American Pickers.
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Mar 072013

Emperor examines the American occupation of Japan following the end of WWII, where General Douglas MacArthur oversaw the re-engineering of Japanese society. A controversial general, MacArthur was equally famous for his gargantuan ego and his military victories. While his military record is debatable, the five years that he spent as American viceroy in Japan produced the greatest achievement in MacArthur’s life. Since the American government was preoccupied with post-war Europe and the Soviet threat, MacArthur was left alone as he quite literally transformed Japan’s society, politics and economy. Rarely has one individual had so much power over a former enemy, but it appears that the movie will focus on the debate over whether or not to try Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal. Read More…

Jan 242013
Spartacus: War of the Damned

Spartacus: War of the Damned will be the third and final season of Spartacus. Judging by the trailer, character development will take a back seat to hacking and slashing with periodic pauses for sweaty sex by candlelight. The producers face an interesting challenge. Viewers know that the revolt was eventually broken, and Spartacus and all of his followers will die, so the question is who will die first. All of the potential personality conflicts that could have brought more nuance to the story have been resolved, usually through the violent death of one or both of the people involved. While there will probably be disagreements among the rebel leadership over the most effective tactics, they will be preoccupied with survival. Fortunately, the Romans can undoubtedly be relied upon to scheme against each other.
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Jan 172013
Ripper Street Trailer

Ripper Street is a BBC series that begins in 1889, six months after the five murders committed by Jack the Ripper, when the police start finding bodies of dead women in the same slum where the original murders had occurred. Copper, BBC America’s first show, was a disappointment, and Ripper Street has some similarities, even though one is located in New York during the Civil War and the other is in London. Both are set in the slums and have a lead character who is in a relationship with the owner of a brothel. Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Macfayden), the series lead, is fixated on Jack the Ripper. Captain Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), a doctor and former Pinkerton detective, lives in a brothel run by his girlfriend, who fled the United States with him. Both Reid and Jackson have secrets, which makes me honestly wonder if it is possible for writers involved in historical-themed shows to successfully pitch a show based on the history alone without resorting to the promise of a hidden secret that will unravel slowly across the episodes. Read More…

Jan 102013
Gangster Squad Trailer

Director Ruben Fleischer’s previous film, Zombieland (2009) was good, silly fun. Gangster Squad looks like it will be the same, only with better production values, and as a period piece. The movie is based on a series of articles, later expanded into a book with the same title, by Paul Lieberman, about the efforts of a squad of police officers to rid Los Angeles of gangsters from the East Coast, during the late 1940s and 1950s. While the potential for a gripping look at the toll the lifestyle takes on both the police and the gangsters exists, the director and writer decided to simply add shootouts. Judging by the trailer, a lot of shootouts. Read More…

Dec 202012
Django Unchained: Trailer

Telling the story of a slave who is freed and trained to be a bounty hunter, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained will undoubtedly show some of the horrors faced by slaves living on a plantation, but the focus will probably be people dressed in fancy clothes, razor-sharp dialogue and killing, a lot of killing. This is not a bad thing, although I doubt that Tarantino will be invited to address the next meeting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
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Sep 132012
Boardwalk Empire Season Three Trailer

The death of a major character during the season two finale shocked many viewers but it also ended the internal struggle for control of Atlantic City that had occupied the series, thus freeing up space for new characters. The producers now have more opportunities to explore the situation in Chicago and New York City, which is where the real action took place during Prohibition.
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Aug 232012
Copper Trailer

I was genuinely excited when I heard that Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, the creators of the ground-breaking Homicide: Life on the Street, had a new show about an Irish-American detective in New York City near the end of the Civil War. While the story of a tough, handsome copper who battles corrupt superiors and wealthy businessmen with the help of a kind-hearted prostitute is not the most original idea, it looks like the writers did their research. Set in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, when working-class white men angered that they would be drafted into the army killed more than a hundred blacks, the black community is moving away to Brooklyn, thus showing that emancipation was far from universally popular. Read More…