Hulu has just released the third season of Harlots, and I can’t wait to start binging. One of the best things about streaming television services is how accessible it’s made period dramas. The Musketeers, Versailles, Outlander — I swear, I just can’t get enough of people parading around in historical (or not so historical) costumes. In a U.S. television landscape dominated by police procedurals and medical melodramas, I feel really fortunate to live in a time when, with a few clicks of the remote, I can sate myself with historical dramas from around the world. It doesn’t even really matter to me how good the production is — the writing, acting and direction can be terrible but I’ll still chew through every season and ask for more.
In fact, if they’re bad, I might even enjoy them a little bit more.
I think my passion for period shows is because the genre has so much in common with fantasy. Without the magic, of course, but there is the same sense of telling a story in a world that doesn’t exist, something that requires us to engage our suspension of disbelief. The production creates its own world that may be rooted in historic reality, but isn’t bound by it. Authenticity doesn’t matter. Anachronism doesn’t matter. Each world has its own rules, and in order to immerse yourself in the story, you have to accept those rules no matter how much they diverge from historic fact. It’s the same pathway to escape that fantasy relies on, and maybe that process is what I want from entertainment, less than what happens when I get there.
When you think about it, there’s something very subversive about historical dramas, despite their implied retrogressive nature. At the very least, the stories told have to be palatable to modern audiences, and that means that, in most cases, the stories would not be appreciated by the people of the time period in which they are set. Despite the surface dressing, fans of period drama don’t really want to see stories about what it was like to live in another century. We want stories that reflect modern sensibilities, just dressed up with brocades, horses and swords. Some shows, like Harlots, embrace that subversiveness wholeheartedly, giving us fantasies of female empowerment where surely nothing similar would have been tolerated in its own time. Even shows that try to more accurately portray period behaviors and mores do so through a lens of judgment. “This is what it was like, back then,” they say, “but you’re not supposed to like it.”
Good fantasy uses the same tools of subversion. We may be reading about wizards and swordsmen and misunderstood dragons, but what we’re looking for within the enchantment is a reflection of ourselves. Maybe it’s easier to see that reflection when it’s stripped of all connections to the real world, fraught as they are with bias and preconceptions.
Through a glass darkly, indeed…I don’t expect anyone ever anticipated that glass would be a T.V. screen!