Welcome To the Age Of Sexy, Televised History!

When you say the word “history” out loud, it’s usually met with a chorus of groans. “I hated history in school! All those dates and crap! So boring.” It’s depressing.

History, if taught right, is a story.  (That’s why it has “story” embedded into it. No joke.) It’s not names, dates, and places. It’s blood and sex, with a dash of art and higher aspirations. It’s the stuff you pay to watch in theaters or on HBO but with the kicker that it actually happened.

I couldn’t be happier that television has decided to take that idea and run crazy with it. The new trend on cable is taking finding some notorious era of history, populated with sex and swearing, and spin a few seasons out of it. HBO kicked off the trend with Rome and Deadwood (and promptly broke our hearts in the process), and now Showtime and Starz have taken up the gauntlet.

Showtime has been happily running around Renaissance England with The Tudors, which is about to wrap up in its fourth season now that Henry VIII is coming to the end of his wives. While it’s played a little fast and loose with history, it’s been a sumptuous watch, and fans won’t have to look far for a replacement.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Showtime is in the process of casting The Borgias. They’ve obviously got a craving for the 15th century, and fans of the Tudors should love the lesser-known Borgias.  A Spanish-Italian family who has been accused of murder, theft, incest, and everything in between, they make Henry VIII and his court look saintly in comparison.

The formidably voiced Jeremy Irons is already on board to play family patriarch Rodrigo Borgia, and now Colm Feore is in talks to play his nemesis Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere. If you’re thinking a whiff of the Catholic Church means this show will be boring, think again. Rodrigo eventually connived his way into the papacy despite openly having mistresses and several children. His papacy was so corrupt that his surname became shorthand for sleaze.

Naturally, Showtime won’t be alone in the bodice ripper industry . They still have Starz and Spartacus: Blood and Sand to compete with, and the show was just renewed for its second season. While Spartacus has more in common with 300 than any Roman history scholars are familiar with, it’s still a good time.  (Our own Diane Panosian loves it for all the right reasons.)

Even HBO hasn’t completely forsaken historical television after the bittersweet seasons of Deadwood and Rome. Let’s face it, the fun of True Blood isn’t just the vampires, Southern comfort, or softcore porn, but the glimpses of Eric Northman and Bill Compton’s murky, well-costumed past.

Who isn’t waiting eagerly to see more of Northman, Godric, and whatever awful stuff they were up to in the Dark Ages? I know for some of you the curiosity isn’t driven purely by how good Alexander Skarsgaard will look in fur and armor. You’re kind digging on the fantasy-history, aren’t you?

And that’s my point. While all these shows have a definite mold (Everyone take off their clothes now! Now put them on and behead someone!),  they are also introducing a lot of people to history in a very cool way. The Tudors and Spartacus may play loose with facts, but the basics of their stories are true.

They don’t even need much spicing up, and often the most shocking moments of any historically based show are true.   Remember the grisly fate of Thomas Cromwell (James Frain) on the last season finale of The Tudors? Completely and utterly true. (Albeit with a dash of bribery to make it more sinister.)

I love picturing viewers at home running to double check the facts on Google, disbelieving that history could ever have a “twist” ending. (Surprise! The story of human civilization full of wacky twists.)

I hope it’s a trend that continues.  I’d love to see other centuries and countries  tackled.  Why not The Plantagenets? The Romanovs?   It’s about time people realized history wasn’t just names, dates, and places.  It’s the stuff you have to pay extra money to see on tv.

  • Diane Panosian
    March 16, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Hey Elizabeth- thanks for the shout-out!

    Excellent writing, I especially enjoyed the line, “Everyone take off their clothes now! Now put them on and behead someone!”. That line is a summary for Spartacus: Blood and Sand if I ever heard one.

    I loved Rome, but the part I loved the best were the commentaries because they would talk about how a lot of the details shown were highly accurate of daily Roman life.

    A series on the Romanov’s would be incredibly interesting. I like where your head’s at.

  • D.B.
    March 16, 2010 at 7:18 am

    Looking forward to that new HBO series in the fall, Empire Boardwalk. Nothing like bootleging and gangsters in the 20’s.

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