Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #730: Television Is History... Sort Of...

Television is on a bit of a history binge. As I reported yesterday, FX is doing Port Royal with Gale Anne Hurd's Valhalla Pictures set in the world of 17th century pirates. FX's sister network Fox must think it's going to do well because they've signed with Ridley & Tony Scott's Scott Free production to do their own pirate themed limited series called Pyrates. Meanwhile, the resurgent MGM is teaming with the people who made The Tudors into a soapy success to do a show about Vikings called Vikings, and the History channel have found two families who won't threaten them over a miniseries and have greenlit a miniseries about the Hatfields VS McCoys feud starring and produced by Kevin Costner.

But wait, there's more.

There's the aforementioned
Tudors, The Borgias, recent miniseries like The Pillars Of The Earth, Downton Abbey, the Upstairs/Downstairs revival, and many more, including Mad Men have all won audiences and awards by taking them on a trip to the past.


Well it's simple.

1. History is inherently dramatic. It's loaded with all sorts of things that audiences find interesting. There's courtly intrigue, there's war, there's love, there's lust, and danger around every corner. Everything you need to make great TV.

2. History is exotic. I'm not just talking about the colorful and sometimes strange costumes worn by the actors. I'm talking about attitudes, customs, and cultures that are both radically different, and yet strangely familiar. It's also all new to a lot of people in the audience, because they don't teach jack-shit about history in schools these days.

3. History is free. Sort of. Technically, the source material, AKA history, is for the most part, public domain. You don't have to pay Rodrigo Borgia for the rights to his story, because he's been dead for 500 years. (If you did have to pay him for his story, I think he'd make Hollywood pay through the nose, and none of that "net profit share" talk.)
Budgets are not as much of a hindrance as they used to be. The recently liberated nations of Eastern Europe have loads of medieval-early 20th century locations available at affordable prices. You don't need armies of extras in costume, because computer technology can turn a handful into a legion with the click of a mouse. (I will always think of I, Claudius, starring Derek Jacobi when I think about big budgets. The show was cheaply made, the sets were cardboard, and no on location shooting, yet it's compelling, even by today's standards.)

4. History is hard to find on the big screen. For decades the grand historical drama was the province of the big screen epic studio movie. Today is a different story. Historical settings are only deemed fitting for fantastical stories of pirates battling sea monsters, and cowboys fighting aliens. If you want a serious historical drama, you're out of luck in the theaters, and it's a gap that the small screen is happy to fill.

Now what is the secret to making a good historical drama that the audience will watch?

Well, it's not really a secret, just some careful planning.

1. Good material. Find a story and characters that would make good TV, then find a good writer(s) to adapt it, and good filmmakers to film them. If there aren't any talented people with a passion to tell the story in the best way they can, you've got nothing but a soap opera in fancy dress, and audiences will be bored.

2. Good casting. It takes a special kind of actor to be convincing in a costume drama. I fear that most contemporary Hollywood stars wouldn't take a job that might force them to change their hairstyle, or hide their trendy tattoos. This is probably why it looks like everyone in the past, from ancient Rome to medieval Spain, speaks with a British accent.

3. No judgement. One trap that people making historical dramas make is to judge historical figures and characters by modern standards and attitudes. That's a mistake. It turns your drama into a lecture about how wrong people were, and nobody likes lectures. A classic example of the "no judgement" formula is the infamous meeting scene in the pilot for Mad Men. In it a bunch of tobacco executives are complaining about government regulations hindering their advertising options because of health concerns. Meanwhile they're wheezing and gasping for breath in a cloud of toxins created by their product.

Now while there is loads of irony inherent in the scene, there is no malice among these tobacco executives. They aren't acting like they know their product is harmful, they can't bring themselves to believe what all the doctors are telling them. When Pete Campbell suggests using the "death wish" as a selling point, the reaction of the head tobacco guy is a horrified: "We're selling cigarettes, not rifles!"

It's the same with The Borgias. While the ads sell them in Canada as the "first crime family," the series itself shows that, when compared to their compatriots, they were products of their time, surrounded by wolves, and forced to be alpha Wolves to stay alive. That total envelopment into their world makes sure that it's not a lecture, but an intriguing drama.

For me, this looks like the beginning of a TV Golden Age, because I'm a freaking history buff of the first order.

1 comment:

  1. One good thing about historical hows is Wardrobe and props, many studios still have in storage hundreds of period peice costumes and props from HW's golden age. You know how many times Queen Elizabeth's dress has been used over and over again.

    I'd love to produce a band of brothers in quality mini about the Civil War. I will not be surprised if one is green-lighted since it is the 150 year anniversary.

    Why do you think Classic Star Trek dis, Roman, Western and Nazi eps? To save money, and Gene was tiffed about it as he wanted to do a serious Sci-fi show and was forced to find ways to reuse some of this old stuff that in some ways barely made sense, but some times it led to classic memorable moments like the gangster themed "Peice of the Action"