So, I hear you liked TURN.
Apres the Season 4 finale, I know there’s going to be a lot of crying, and hand-wringing, and rewatching, and these are all good and proper things to do in the wake of a TV show you’ve enjoyed.
But after the smoke clears from all of that, you’re maybe going to go looking for your next 18th century fix, just something in between rewatches or while you’re trying to flesh out your next story idea. (Hey, now that we have our canon, go hog-wild on story ideas, guys, seriously.)
So I’ve saved you some trouble and made you all a helpful list.
Obviously there are a lot of movies and TV shows out there - this is just a selection that I wish more people knew about.
Note: Everyone enjoys a show or movie for different reasons. These shows are on this list because of the time period they depict, not because of the quality of their writing, the accuracy of their history or the political nature of their content. Where I’m able to, I’ve mentioned if a book is available if you’d like to read more.
Before we get to the rest of the list, there are three excellent shows that are either currently on television or about to be very soon:
Poldark (BBC/PBS) is based on a series of books by an author named Winston Graham. It was made into a PBS series in the 70s starring Robin Ellis as the handsome Captain Poldark, who returns from the American Revolution to find his family farm in tatters and his long-time love interest married to his cousin. Drama ensues. The 70s series is worth your time, and the recent remake with Aidan Turner in the title role is also definitely worth a go. (If you like leading men who make terrible life decisions and the women who put up with them, this is totally your show.)
Harlots (Hulu) - If you really loved the TURN ladies, thought Lola and Philomena deserved more than they got, or are just interested to learn more about what life might have been like for the lower classes in London in the 1750s, have we got a deal for you. Harlots follows the lives of 18th century sex workers in this new drama, which was just recently renewed for a totally deserved second season. Female-lead ensemble drama. A little violent at points and deals with some pretty heavy-duty topics like rape, murder, and bastardy, but in a humane and understanding way. Totally bingeable.
Outlander (Starz) - Based on the wildly popular series of books by Diana Gabaldon, this time traveling drama jumps between a couple of different centuries and follows the story of Jamie and Claire, two very strong personalities trying to literally find their place in history. (Hewlett talks about the blade his grandfather picked up at Culloden; that battle forms a critical part of this show’s storyline.) It’s a real pretty show with very high production values.
And, without further ado, the rest of the list!
John Adams: If you haven’t watched this already, do yourself a favor and go pick it up from the library. Starring Paul Giametti in the title role, this HBO miniseries follows John Adams’ role in the formation of America, through his early days in Congress up through his own presidency. As with any biographical show, characters that we know and love from other media (Rufus Sewell’s Hamilton comes to mind, but see what you think of David Morse’s Washington, too) are presented in a slightly different light and provide some food for thought about how history can be selective in how it remembers us. The costuming is great, the sets are fantastic, and the acting is first-rate.
The Patriot: An oldie but a goodie. Mel Gibson plays a highly fictionalized version of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox while Jason Isaacs turns in a really stellar hottie we love to hate in Colonel Tavington. A little heavy-handed at times, this is a good movie to laugh over with friends.
Sons of Liberty: I’ll be really honest - for a show from the History Channel, the history on this show is pretty awful. But the cast is pretty. This one’s up to you, really. It fills a hole.
Garrow’s Law: William Garrow was a barrister and a pioneering legal mind in the 18th century, and this show (which ran for 3 seasons) is based on real Old Bailey cases and Garrow’s defenses, while also working in his fraught social life. Were you interested in learning a little more about Abe Woodhull’s erstwhile legal training? This is the show for you.
City of Vice: A miniseries that explains the origins and work of the Bow Street Runners, one of London’s first police forces. Does a great job of opening up some of the early 18th century underside of London including a smidge of 18th century gay culture.
A Harlot’s Progress: William Hogarth was an 18th century artist, printmaker and social commentator whose “A Harlot’s Progress” famously depicts the downfall of a woman who goes into prostitution. This 2006 series explores the relationship that inspired the ‘Harlot’ piece.
The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant: At around the same time America was busy trying to figure itself out, halfway around the world another one of Britain’s colonial possessions - Australia - was just getting started. Hundreds of convicts found themselves stuffed in ships and sent to the other side of the world - a sentence deemed almost more humane. This 2005 series with Romala Garai follows a very famous convict, Mary Bryant, and her experiences.
Banished: Another take on penal colonies in Australia. Currently available on Hulu.
Black Sails: A more recent offering from Starz, this show explores the backstory of the pirates in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Lots of great representation issues, a whole lot of ‘how does your story get told’ - and there’s a real big community on Tumblr who loves it and very actively produces all kinds of fic.
Clarissa - Simcoe fans, this one is totally for you. Based on the epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, Clarissa follows a girl of the same name as the infamous rake Lovelace tries to seduce her. Another look at what how women can be corrupted. Also, for you fandom nerds in the crowd, Lovelace was one of the first characters to inspire fix-it fic. Yes, really! Fix-it fic in the late 1700s. Lovelace is one of the original men for whom the ‘No, really, I can reform him’ trope was created. (Richardson, his creator, was so horrified by this reaction by his fans that he actually revised the book several times to try and make Lovelace even more villainous and irredeemable, with little success. Then as now, women apparently love the idea of a bad boy.)
Amazing Grace - The history of slavery in England and its colonies is complicated and nuanced; this story deals with one of the more famous names from that story, William Wilberforce, and his contribution.
Belle - Based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral. Another look at racial politics in England.
The Aristocrats - One of my all-time favorite TV miniseries and based on the nonfiction book by Stella Tilyard, this show follows the (actual, nonfictional) Lennox sisters, daughters of the Duke of Richmond as they grow up, marry, and adjust to rapid social change from the early 1700s into the 1790s.
The Duchess - About the same time the Lennox sisters were out in society, so was Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. This is based on (I’m not sure how closely) Amanda Foreman’s biography of Georgiana, one of the leading ladies of her day.
Dangerous Liasons - Another story about corruptible young women, this one has 3 very well deserved Oscars to its name and an absolutely stunning Glenn Close.
Barry Lyndon - a very evocative, sumptuous film by Stanley Kubrick. Short on action, but very, very Aesthetic, as only Kubrick can do.
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Based on the book by Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel is largely considered to be one of the world’s first ‘superhero with a secret identity’ stories. Sir Percy Blakeney uses his identity as a dim-witted fop to provide cover for his activities rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The 1982 version with Anthony Andrews and the 1999 version with Richard Grant are both a lot of fun.
Speaking of the French, where would we be without them? Our small domestic dust-up with Britain has far-reaching international consequences, setting in motion so many other social movements in Europe. The French, for instance, will have their own revolution several years after ours, which, of course, will lead to a total political shakeup ending with an artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte on the throne as Emperor. (You may have heard of him. He goes on to have his own series of large wars and, you know, completely changes the geo-political landscape of Europe. Like you do.)
La Revolution Francaise, filmed for the 200th anniversary of the Revolution, is available on YouTube in it’s entirety with English subtitles! Starts in 1774 and goes through the 1800s. C’est merveilleux.
Marie Antoinette - Sofia Coppola’s wild, modern romp through the life of one of the 18th century’s most notorious women. It may not be great history, but darn me if it isn’t fun to watch.
Farewell, My Queen - Another story about Marie Antoinette - this one is in French.
Nicolas Le Floch: An 18th century crime procedural set at the court of Louis XVI. The whole show is in French, so watch with subtitles, but the costumes are a lot of fun and it gives an interesting picture of the life a character like Lafayette would have left behind when he came to America. (He gets name dropped a few times, actually, though he never actually appears.)
Ekaterina: A 2014 miniseries from Russia discussing the rise of Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, contemporaneous to the Revolution. The 18th century is a fascinating time in Russian history and Catherine is a really, really interesting lady. Totally go and read about her.
Anno 1790: A Swedish crime procedural set in 1790s Sweden and following Johann Däadh, a doctor recently roped into the police force. Däadh is a bit of a reformer, interested in the rights of man and giving everyone a chance to be heard. Costumes are fun, and there’s a really great slow-burn romance between two of the characters, one of whom is (gasp) married. This show only ran for one season, but it was a really, really good season.
If you’re still jonesing for period dramas after the rest of this list, here’s a lot of shows and tv series set during the Napoleonic Wars that are also totally worth your time - the Richard Sharpe miniseries, the Horatio Hornblower miniseries, the BBC’s War and Peace, Master and Commander, and then, of course, anything based on a Jane Austen novel.