How to Watch 'The Great,' 'Hollywood' and More Historical Drama Series
By Stacy Lambe
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The TV industry loves revisiting the past and bringing to light various stories that are based on or inspired by real-life events. Historical fiction, as it’s more commonly known as, mixes some of the best elements of storytelling: costume or period pieces, ensemble casts in interlocking stories, portrayals of true events or people, all of which have the ability to send audiences back in time without them ever having to leave their couch.
Recently, the ever-expanding array of streaming platforms have seen the recent development of new series, like Hollywood and The Great, exploring life in the golden age of the movie industry and loosely accurate events of Empress Catherine the Great’s reign, respectively. With so many to choose from, ET has rounded up the best series -- new and old -- now streaming on Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and more platforms.
After the success of Downton Abbey (see below), creator Julian Fellowes and producer Gareth Neame reunited to adapt Fellowes’ own novel about aspirations, lies and affairs of overlapping families living in Belgravia, the affluent district of London during the mid-1800s. Their stories begin at a now-infamous ball that took place two days before the Battle of Waterloo, where scandal unfolds. While darker than its predecessor, Neame says that the limited series still explores how class structure dictates and affects the daily lives of people at this time.
Creator Peter Morgan’s sprawling, award-winning drama recounts the life of Queen Elizabeth II and the events of her reign, starting with her unexpected path to the throne to her relationship with an ever-modernizing world and the scandals that followed certain family members. So far, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have portrayed the matriarch with Imelda Staunton taking over the role for the final two seasons of the star-studded series.
Creator David Milch’s celebrated Western drama explores the many (real and fictional) lives of the lawless South Dakota camp in the 1870s over the course of three seasons and a follow-up film. Like any good story -- and this is a really good story -- Timothy Olyphant, who plays reluctant sheriff Seth Bullock, says “it makes you feel like you have a greater understanding of humanity.”
Hailee Steinfeld portrays Emily Dickinson in the coming-of-age series that positions the budding creative writer as an unexpected hero for a millennial era. “This is a story from the perspective of one of the greatest female American poets ever," the actress says. "And it's wild and it's funny and it's weird and it's a little bit of everything.”
National Geographic’s Emmy-winning anthology series depicts the fascinating stories of the world’s most brilliant innovators. After first exploring the lives of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, season 3 is focused on Aretha Franklin, who is portrayed on screen by Cynthia Erivo. “She was the queen in every sense of the word,” the actress said of the music legend, adding that portraying her idol is “definitely a big undertaking, but I’ve had a really good time.”
While The Great is not the first series to revisit the life and rule of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, it’s certainly one of the best. Creator and the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Favourite Tony McNamara makes no apologies about its satirical take and disregard for historical accuracy in the stylish and bitingly funny series starring Elle Fanning as a younger version of the aspiring ruler adjusting to royal life as wife to Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult).
The star-studded limited series created by Ryan Murphy follows a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers trying to make it during the Golden Age of Tinseltown, no matter the costs or setbacks they face. The lives of these fictional characters unfold alongside the real-life events and personalities that helped define Hollywood at the time: the rise of leading man and closeted actor Rock Hudson, the struggles faced by actors of color Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel, the notorious backroom dealings of agent Henry Willson.
The limited series revisits the 1970s ERA battle with Cate Blanchett leading an ensemble cast as Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative constitutional lawyer and opponent of the proposed amendment. While viewers get an inside look into Schlafly’s rise within the political arena, it’s not a biopic focused solely on her story. “It’s about the various sections of the women’s movement,” Blanchett says. “There was an equal and opposite traditional women’s movement as there was the feminist women’s movement.”
Patrick J. Adams and Jake McDorman lead the Disney+ drama series The Right Stuff as Major John Glenn and Lieutenant Commander Alan Shepard, respectively, two of America’s original astronauts known as the Mercury 7. Based on the best-selling book by Tom Wolfe, which was previously turned into a 1983 hit film starring Ed Harris and Sam Shepard, the eight-part series revisits America’s 1960s space race with the Soviet Union and the formation of NASA. It is told through the eyes of seven men who made up the original astronaut program.
Late actor Andy Whitfield portrayed Spartacus on this sexy and bloody series, about the real-life enslaved gladiator who later became a hero and leader of the rebellion against the Roman Republic. The show, which also starred Jai Courtney and Lucy Lawless, ran for three seasons and spawned a short-lived prequel series, Gods of the Arena.
Inspired by the Norsemen of early medieval Scandinavia, Vikings loosely follows the exploits of legendary chieftain Ragnar Lothbrok (portrayed here by Travis Fimmel) and his clan. “The show is as true to history as I can make it,” creator Michael Hirst says, adding that over time the show deviated from history as it started to develop and get deeper into its ensemble of characters.