TV makes history

Cue the mutton chops and corsets—networks are crazy about period pieces

TV makes history

ho’s watching: Shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are critical successes, but they have trouble attracting a wide audience

A new kind of reality TV is taking over our small screens: fictional shows in real historical settings. Thanks to series like Downton Abbey and Mad Men, actors are appearing in period pieces much more often, wearing costumes and makeup to match. Steve Buscemi has a carnation in his lapel and slicked-back hair on the 1920s show Boardwalk Empire. Tom Weston-Jones wears big sideburns and an even bigger 19th-century hat on the BBC America drama Copper. And on Vegas, a new show starring Dennis Quaid as a lawman trying to clean up the city in the 1960s, Michael Chiklis plays a gangster who dresses like a character out of Guys and Dolls. “There’s never been any time as accepting of period pieces,” says Copper producer Christina Wayne. The question is whether this glut of period dramas will strain that acceptance to the limit.

There’s no doubt networks are more interested in period shows now than they were even a few years ago. BBC America chose Copper, set in New York following the U.S. Civil War, as its first U.S. production (though it’s filmed in Toronto). Former HBO head Chris Albrecht is trying to bring some attention to a different channel, Starz, with a show set in 1959 Miami called Magic City, while Mad Men network AMC has the downbeat anti-western Hell on Wheels, about the journeys of a former Confederate soldier. Greg Walker, who co-created Vegas for CBS, says far from being nervous about the cost or the setting, the network “has been really aggressive in pushing the period elements. They obviously like the sexiness.”

It’s still not clear whether audiences will find period pieces sexy on a weekly basis. Most of the successful ones have been stand-alone movies or miniseries, like the recent hit Hatfields & McCoys, which won Kevin Costner an Emmy for best lead actor. When a period show tries to get us to tune in for 22 episodes a year, it often bombs, like The Playboy Club or the ’60s stewardess soap Pan Am. “It’s untested territory whether there is a big-tent audience for a period show,” says Walker, whose Vegas got off to a good but not spectacular start on CBS and Global. “I don’t know what Mad Men’s numbers are on a season finale, but I’m fairly confident it wouldn’t get you three weeks’ run on CBS.”

Why do period shows have trouble sustaining a large audience? One problem is they’re hemmed in by reality. With a contemporary show, or a fantasy like Game of Thrones, the writer isn’t held back by facts; with Vegas, which had trouble attracting young people for its premiere Sept. 25, audiences may already know that the real-life sherriff the show’s character is based upon tried and failed to keep corruption out of the city. “We know how this story ends,” Walker admits. “We know that Vegas becomes Vegas.”

Period shows have another thing working against them: the expense. “You basically have to manufacture everything that goes in front of the camera,” says producer Brad Van Arragon, who helps create Copper’s old New York on Toronto soundstages. Walker notes one of Vegas’s main-street sets is “only practical up to 12 feet. Everything above that is a digital world.” Shows can’t save much money by shooting outdoors, either. “We are trying to create a vision of what New York was like at this time,” Van Arragon says, “and even the period houses in Toronto don’t look like that. We wound up building more than we anticipated.”

And though digital technology has made it easier to take out telephone wires and other anachronistic touches that may find their way into the shot, it hasn’t made it any less costly. “It was surprisingly expensive,” says Cal Coons, who developed and produced Murdoch Mysteries, which is set at the turn of the 20th century. “Every frame has to be dealt with.” The amount of money it takes to portray the past can scare off any producer without a sizable budget, which means something like The Borgias, a saga about an Italian crime family set in 1492, can’t be produced without money from multiple countries and networks.

Just because period shows are hard or risky doesn’t mean they can’t be popular. In earlier days of television, some of the biggest hits were set in a specific time period, from westerns to the ’30s sweetness of The Waltons to the fake ’50s of M*A*S*H. Many succeeded by finding ways to be relevant and not wallow in nostalgia; that’s why today’s producers try to choose stories that will have some modern resonance. Wayne says Copper did an episode about the re-election campaign of Lincoln that was deliberately timed and planned to echo the current U.S. election. “There were some parallels between Lincoln and Obama; knowing that it was going to air in August 2012, that was on purpose.” Screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas), who co-created Vegas, says it’s important to remember that emotions are “eternal, aren’t they? Falling in love, not being in love, being ambitious, wanting to take over the world.”

Other shows try to connect with the modern world by showing the time period from a tongue-in-cheek, ironic perspective. The light-hearted Murdoch Mysteries draws a lot of its humour from the fact that police techniques familiar to us now are new and strange to the characters. “When the show is at its best, it’s clearly a comment on what’s happening today,” Coons explains. “So I wasn’t trying to represent that period as gospel. What I was trying to do is evoke it.” And writers try to make their dialogue accessible to a modern audience, sidestepping the problems of the HBO western drama Deadwood, which may have turned casual viewers off with its deliberately archaic-sounding dialogue. Walker says Vegas feeds its scripts into a computer to “vet the dialogue and make sure we’re not using anything anachronistic,” but they don’t try to make the writing sound exactly like the way people used to talk. “We don’t want it to feel like Shakespeare. It’s 50 years ago, not 500.” Wayne adds that on Copper, “we didn’t want them to speak in some stylized way like they were speaking an ancient language. We wanted them [to sound] more modern.”

For the writers, period shows have some built-in advantages that make them attractive to those who may be burned out on regular storytelling. For one thing, older technology can change the way stories are written and make them more exciting. “There are no cellphones,” Walker says, explaining how Vegas is different from other crime shows he’s worked on. “There’s no DNA analysis. There’s barely a fingerprint database. Everything goes by rotary telephone.” By setting a drama before all the modern inventions, creators can bring back some of the story devices that technology has rendered obsolete, like characters who can’t contact each other at a crucial moment.

By setting a show in a specific time, the writers also open up new story possibilities beyond the usual television fare. “When you’re telling stories in that era, there are so many social elements, like racism or class, the immigrant wave that came in to support the new casinos,” Walker says. “You can deal with those issues in a way that wouldn’t feel the same now.” And even old standby TV plots can feel invigorated by a costume drama, which explains why Downton Abbey gets away with melodrama that might seem crazy in modern dress. “I find some tropes that feel tired in contemporary usage take on a freshness when they’re put in the historical past,” Walker says. “We’ve used some twists that we would never use in a contemporary show. It hasn’t happened as often to the characters back then, so it feels fresh in that context.”

And apart from increasing the number of potential story ideas, there’s another good reason to make a TV series set in the past: If it is a success, the financial rewards can be much greater than a made-for-TV movie or miniseries. “The great benefit of shooting a series as opposed to a one-off or miniseries is that you can continue to use the sets,” says Van Arragon. “So mathematically it’s more efficient.” That could explain why some short-run shows have been expanded into full-fledged series, like the Canadian hit Bomb Girls, originally aired as a miniseries about women on the home front in the Second World War and now filming a second season where the war will continue indefinitely. That means we’re likely to see more long-running shows set in the distant or recent past, giving actors more opportunities to wear unusual facial hair. But, Coons warns, there’s a pitfall actors have to watch for when doing a show like this. “You put anybody into period garb, and the next thing you know they’ve got a British accent. How did that happen?”

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