Let’s face it, when you hear "period drama," you associate it with the type of thing geared towards the female demographic. Period dramas are associated with pretty outfits and long, flowing dresses, posh talk and love stories; while there’s nothing wrong with that, shows like Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge and Call The Midwife aren't necessarily something that you would admit to your macho friends that you enjoy as Sunday evening viewing. Don’t get me wrong though, all are great shows. (Well, I've never actually seen Downton Abbey and I stopped watching Mr. Selfridge about mid-way through the third season, but I do have particular love for Call The Midwife... I just love it. It’s a guilty pleasure.) Even more gender neutral shows like Masters of Sex (which I also watch) can hurt your manliness, even in today’s gender equal society. Men like history and nice clothes too, and in recent years, the television genre of drama in old times has seen the rising popularity of slightly tougher "historical dramas," as we like to call them. So, in honor of Brit historical crime drama Peaky Blinders returning this week, here are my top historical dramas that we men can enjoy and not jeopardize ruining our manly manliness. Bear in mind, this is based on shows that I personally have watched or am currently watching. So, sorry Ripper Street fans! In no particular order, let’s begin.
Let’s start with the inspiration for this list:
6. Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders is like a British Boardwalk Empire, taking place in Birmingham during the same time period of the '20s (well it actually starts in 1919 but same diff) and deals with similar themes. Like Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders is inspired by real-life historical gangsters. The Peaky Blinders gang did actually exist, but probably not quite like this. Created by Steven Knight with a cast that's like a who’s who of the best British actors. From Cillian Murphy as the leader of the titular gangster family, so called due to the razor blades sewn into their flat caps, to cut out eye balls and tongues for their deadly dealings. Also with Helen McCrory and Sam Neill, with Tom Hardy joining the cast from its significantly more violent and gritty second series onward as no holds barred Jewish gangster, Alfie Solomons. The cinematography, sets and direction are stunning and the modern bluesy soundtrack including the White Stripes, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey all come together in a lovely and ruthless little package that is well worth watching. Not to mention that it's the reason I started wearing a flat cap! Peaky Blinders returns to UK screens on BBC Two on May 5th and sometime after for the US on Netflix.
We may as well follow on from one 1920s crime drama to another.
5. Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire takes place in Atlantic City during the Prohibition Era in the United States and is also inspired by real-life gangsters and events. Nobody can argue with the credentials of this series: Made by HBO and created by Terence Winter, Emmy-winning writer on arguably the greatest television series ever made (which I STILL haven’t seen) The Sopranos. In addition, the $18m pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese, with the legendary director staying on afterwards as executive producer (Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese are also behind 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street). If you aren’t sold yet then I don’t know what's wrong with you. The series is led by Steve Buscemi as corrupt politician and bootlegger Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, based on the real life Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. Supporting cast includes Brits Kelly McDonald as Nucky’s feisty wife and Stephen Graham as the notorious Al Capone. The soundtrack decided to stay authentic, with modern re-recordings of 1920s songs and tunes. The multi-award winning saga wrapped up after its fifth season in 2014 and is available on DVD. Go find it! Also, if you’re interested in the real-life story of the rise of the corrupted bosses of Atlantic City before and during Prohibition, check out the book that inspired the series, titled Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City.
Let's now travel a little further back in time to a New York City hospital in 1900.
4. The Knick
Cinemax’s The Knick is directed by Steven Soderbergh of Ocean's Eleven and follows Clive Owen as masterful but troubled surgeon John W. Thackeray (partially based on real-life surgeon William Stewart Halsted) and the staff at a fictionalized version on the Knickerbocker Hospital (the “Knick”) in New York City during the early twentieth century. The Knick is about the innovation of modern medicine and the limitations of what was available at the time. There was no general anesthetic and no sugar-coating. The Knick shows it all in its entirety; everything from opening hearts to amputation to probing a live man's brain, so if you're squeamish (which isn’t manly), then be sure to have a pillow handy (which REALLY isn't manly). The show also deals with subjects like racism, with Harvard educated African American surgeon Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) hesitantly hired at the Knick and fighting for respect in the all-white hospital and racially charged city. Heavy emphasis is also based around John W. Thackery’s addiction and reliance on cocaine, often times unable to surgically preform unless under the influence. The Knick has a psychological and edgy electronic based soundtrack and stunning, yet somewhat unorthodox direction and experimental camera angles. A television director would typically focus on whoever is speaking in a group scene, but not Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh reportedly wants to focus on which character has the most at stake emotionally in each scene, with the camera often in a fixed position, typically near the ceiling or down towards the floor, or somewhere else that you probably wouldn’t think of. It gives it all a very raw feel. It's currently unclear where the show is headed after how it left things at the end of the last season, but wherever it goes from here, it’s definitely worth checking out Seasons 1 and 2.
1917, a much smaller hospital in Russia...
3. A Young Doctor's Notebook
This Sky Arts drama, based on the series of books by Mikhail Bulgakov, tells the story of a doctor looking back on his time practising in a small village hospital in Russia between 1917-1918 and struggling with his progressing addiction to morphine. It stars Jon Hamm with an English accent and Daniel Radcliffe as each version of the doctor. The elder doctor is currently under investigation for writing prescriptions of morphine to himself and spends time reading his old diary entries and 'inserting' himself back into those memories, most of the time interacting with his younger self in an attempt to stop himself from using the drug in the first place. The show is primarily a dark comedy- most of the humor coming from these interactions. The show is short, only airing eight half hour episodes over two series, but it is definitely worth watching just for Radcliffe's and Hamm's performances and chemistry alone. Daniel Radcliffe has really come into his own and broken away from his Harry Potter persona, proving himself to be an exceptional actor. And well, Jon Hamm is Jon Hamm. The show can be funny at times but as stated, deals with serious subjects like addiction, illness and death; a lot of the time these are used for humorous effect and like The Knick, There is also a lot of graphic surgical scenes, most of which are also used for humorous effect. Like that scene where the young doctor is struggling to pull out a patients tooth, resulting in him pulling, tugging and dragging him across the floor for ages. So yeah, not for the (less manly) faint hearted but if you find humour in that sort of thing, give it a go! It is currently unknown if there will ever be a third series with both actor's busy schedules but it's worth checking out the first two. It'll only take up four hours of your time!
Let’s now do a time jump forward to the early 1980s during the Cold War.
2. The Americans
The Americans follows the complex marriage of Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, played by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, a pair of undercover KGB spies posing as an American married couple hiding in plain sight in suburban Washington DC who often don multiple disguises and identities to complete missions. They've been doing so for nearly 20 years and have children of their own, who know nothing (Jon Snow). Ahem. Then one day, they get new neighbors, one of which happens to be an FBI agent, and the stakes rise to Breaking Bad proportions. Almost every character in The Americans is leading a double life in some form or another. The show is as much about family values and home life as it is about the secret agent business. The work/home aspects are balanced out nicely, in a similar way to Mad Men. The Americans is somewhat lesser known, at least in the UK, but is easily one of the best dramas on television right now. The Emmy-nominated series just started its fourth season on FX in the US, so go catch up!
I know I said this list was in no particular order, but...
1. Mad Men
Mad Men undoubtedly ranks in the top five television dramas of all time and is the only show of which I own the complete boxset. The four-time Emmy award-winning series that was created by former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner and stars Jon Hamm and January Jones, follows the lives of the employees of a fictional ad agency in Manhattan during the 1960s. It is a heavily, character driven show, dealing with everyday life and the struggles it brings. In relation to the time period, Mad Men is full of subjects like racism, sexism, homophobia and segregation, and doesn’t shy away from any of it. It explores the ever changing times and the struggles of being anything but a white male in the '60s. Oh, and everybody is drinking and smoking 99 percent of the time. Mad Men has been universally adored since its debut in 2007 through to its end in 2015 and beyond, reviving many old school fashion trends and baby names. And let’s be honest, we all wish we were a little more like Don Draper. Mad Men is sleek, stylish and sexy as hell with deep and complex characters, all of which make it well worth your time.
So there you have it, five manlier period dramas with high levels of testosterone that you can watch during your man-time. Having said that, I know at least one female that watches each one of these shows. So, there you go. Enjoy!