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Window to the Present

Arts & Culture | October 28, 2013

We seem to have entered a new golden age of television. Television shows have acquired the same cult-like followings that were at one time reserved for musicians. Amid the craze, one television genre in particular calls attention to itself. The period drama—a genre defined by period pieces that use elaborate elements to convey the essence of a particular era—has taken the spotlight and reached an unprecedented level of popularity.  The period drama has come to command the stage of modern television, rekindling an appreciation for the lost art of storytelling and bringing a new present-day relevance to the dynamics of our past.

With this sudden rise of the period drama, shows like Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire have come to capture the attention of American audiences, acquiring both devoted fan bases and remarkable praise. In total, these three shows combined have raked in a total of 42 wins out of 176 Emmy nominations. According to PBS, season three of Downton Abbey attracted a whopping 24 million viewers over the course of its seven-week run, making it the highest-rated drama in the history of PBS.  Meanwhile, an impressive 2.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the season six finale of Mad Men, which aired in June 2013. Whether it’s the gangster dealings in 1920’s Atlantic City, the egoistic competition of the 1960’s New York advertising world, or the post-Edwardian era drama of the aristocratic Crawley family, there is no doubt that American audiences have become deeply invested in period drama television and more notably, the complex applications of our society’s dynamic past.

However, it still appears odd that such an evolved genre should thrive in a television landscape dominated by Honey Boo Boo, Real Housewives, and Jersey Shore guidos. It seems that while much of the “guilty pleasure” reality TV that litters our programming reflects the deterioration and flaws of our society, programs set in the past serves to remind us of the “good ol’ days” before teenage pregnancy granted young girls stardom and an MTV show. We seem to revel in the glamorous depictions of the past in an attempt to forget the faults of the present. That being said, at a closer glance, it becomes clear that many of the prevalent social injustices present in shows like Downton Abbey, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire are even more backwards and antiquated than those in programming placed in the present day. These shows have braved through their fair share of criticism for depicting strong sentiments of racial tension, rigid gender roles, and mob mentality all in the name of historical accuracy.  For instance, Downton Abbey effectively addresses issues of class conflict and racial tensions when the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham—the patriarch of the noble and dignified Crawley family—runs off to marry an Irish driver. Fueled by their resentment of the driver’s low class breeding and Irish roots, the Crawley family spirals into a whirlwind of outrage and disapproval. Meanwhile, AMC’s Mad Men confronts the rise of feminine power and the decline of male sovereignty through the shifting gender roles in the work place of 1960s America. With a plot full of women divorcing their cheating husbands and ambitiously climbing the corporate ladder, Mad Men is as much about the women as it is about the men.

By grounding these shows in historical eras, the creators have discovered a way to make strong social commentaries from the past connect to the present. Period television engages with these social issues without appearing overly forthright or confrontational, restoring relevance to the issues of the past without drawing direct parallels with the viewers. We’ve finally begun to transition out of a period where much of the television available to viewers was centered purely don gimmicks and stunts that appealed to our less-than-sophisticated sensibilities. It’s refreshing to finally find shows that demonstrate consideration for an evolving plot, character development, and thematic consistency. By memorializing the past and presenting it in the realm of the present through the craft of storytelling, these shows allow their audiences to gaze upon our social issues from a distance. Utilizing historical periods introduces social issues in a way that is distant and foreign enough so as not to make viewers feel criticized or uncomfortable, but real and authentic enough to make them appear relevant to the present day. The skillful storytelling applied in these shows draws in viewers, subconsciously encouraging them to relate the struggles of the characters to their present day lives. Whether it is the forbidden love in Downton Abbey or the defiance of gender roles in Mad Men, viewers invest in the characters and come to identify with their circumstances.

Moreover, the resurrection of the period drama has managed to reintroduce the often-underrated art of storytelling when the American audience needed it most. With a struggling economy and growing political tension—among other mounting social strains—viewers were in dire need of some form of escape. That escape came through television, but television that took on an entirely new form. It came in the form of the period pieces: shows that transport viewers to a different era, allowing them to relate to and invest themselves in the plights of the characters while simultaneously removing them from the struggles of the present. By capturing the essence of the past, period television serves not only as a form of entertainment but also as an important vehicle for social commentary. Don Draper is no relic of the past—he’s a mirror to our present and a guide to our future.