There's nothing quite as satisfying as a well-made historical drama - whether it's the sets, costumes, period flavor, the delicious feel of peeping into another time, or of seeing characters from history come to flesh-and-blood life on screen.
An inevitable byproduct is the attempt to measure such shows against actual historical events and to point out inaccuracies which the directors then counter with the plea of artistic licence. But without going into that particular debate, let me recommend a couple of splendid historical dramas you *must* watch.
This was a show that premiered in 2011 and ran for three seasons. It was abruptly cancelled (the story was still incomplete), leading to howls of protest from fans who are still clamouring for a season 4 to bring the series to its logical conclusion.
Grandly mounted, with some of the most mouth-wateringly gorgeous costumes I've ever seen, it's set in 16th century Renaissance Italy and tells the story of the ambitious Borgia clan, notorious in history and popular culture for their savagery and lust for power. Often referred to as Italy's first crime family; violence, murders, assassinations, incest and orgies were quite 'normal' in their world.
It has been said that the Borgias may have been over-vilified, that Renaissance Italy was itself a lawless world where ruthless power-hungry city-states jockeyed for supremacy.
Not being an expert in Italian history, I have no idea whether this is true or not. But the TV show is a stunner. Though there is a large cast of characters, it revolves around Rodrigo Borgia who becomes Pope Alexander VI, his son Cesare Borgia and daughter Lucrezia. Rodrigo is played by the masterful Jeremy Irons (owner of 'that' voice - like whisky rolled in sandpaper wrapped in silk. There is even a Facebook page devoted only to his voice!).
In his regal white flowing robes, Rodrigo sweeps through high-ceilinged halls with a posse of cardinals trailing behind him, has passionate sex with his beautiful mistress in his lush bedchamber, appears at public functions in all his papal splendor - while continuously plotting and scheming to extend his family's influence.
His prickly relationship with his son Cesare (played by Canadian actor Francois Arnaud) is at the heart of the story. Rodrigo appoints his other son, the cowardly, incompetent, violent Juan as the head of the papal army, and makes Cesare a cardinal. Cesare chafes in his scarlet cardinal's robes, wants his brother's job and seethes at his father's preference for Juan.
Siblings Cesare and Lucrezia sharing a cosy moment.
Cesare is the single most fascinating character of the show - dark and cruel, but full of an all-consuming love for his sister Lucrezia. With his unruly hair, clad in silver-studded dark jackets and tight black leather pants (which became his signature style), never too far away from a sword, Francois Arnaud became an overnight TV heartthrob.
The show doesn't shy away from the incestuous relationship between Cesare and the angelically beautiful Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) and goes where few shows dare to go - straight into their bedroom. The charismatic Cesare is the only man Lucrezia can love, though Cesare has another woman he loves too.
And when this other woman is murdered, he exacts terrible vengeance.
The TV show is a tapestry of fraught family relationships, uninhibited sexual liasions, deep love, shot through with the overarching theme of medieval power play at its bloodiest. But boy, does it make for gripping television!
Honorary mention: Micheletto (chillingly played by Sean Harris), Cesare's personal assassin. His loyalty to his master is unquestioning and complete. But he has a secret which could be his undoing.
This is an even older TV show which started in 2005 and wrapped up in just two seasons. It's an HBO offering and was shown on Indian TV some years ago (though I'm sure censorship killed it). But in case you haven't seen it, do watch it now.
The setting: Rome in the 1st century BC, with a cast of grand characters - Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Brutus, Gaius Octavian… But the main protagonists are more humble: two Roman soldiers, the reserved Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, who TV viewers may remember as Dr Owen Hunt in Grey's Anatomy) and the flamboyant Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson).
They strike up an unlikely friendship which lasts through both seasons. They go through their ups and downs, and are observers, often even participants in the power struggle in Rome which leads to the assassination of Julius Caesar and the rise of the icy-cold Octavian. Woven into the larger picture is the bitter rivalry between Julius Caesar's mistress and Octavian's mother, the womanizing Marc Antony's attempts to cling to power and outwit his enemies and much, much more.
The series also follows the tempestuous personal lives of Lucius Vorenus (his wife is played by the sultry Indira Varma, who we recently saw in Game of Thrones) and Titus Pullo. There is plenty of nudity, sex and graphic violence (often almost casually inserted into the show) but it's a (pun intended) bloody good watch. The best part - since the show is just two seasons, it is compact and tightly told.
Indira Varma plays the wife of Lucius Vorenus.
Pillars of the Earth:
An eight-part mini series (telecast in 2010) based on Ken Follet's novel of the same name. Set in 12th century England, it is the story of a good churchman's efforts to build a magnificent cathedral while dealing with a wily Bishop, against the backdrop of (yes, once again) a power struggle for the British throne. Worth a watch.