Period Dramas, Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, Reshaping Entertainment

History repeats itself... for your entertainment.

By , Contributor

Forbidden romance, heaving bosoms, rolling hills, strapping young men dashing about on horseback through stunning countryside… it seems everyone loves a good old period drama.

The unprecedented triumph of racy early 1900s period drama Downton Abbey (below) on both sides of the Atlantic has seen the programme pick up four Emmys at last Sunday’s ceremony, including the coveted Best Miniseries or TV Movie award. 


Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer and creator said of the award: "This is really a David and Goliath story, except in this case Goliath was wonderful, some wonderful shows that we were up against, and it seems perfectly extraordinary that we've won."

Not to be outdone, HBO’s No. 2 current series Boardwalk Empire saw its director Martin Scorsese pick up the Outstanding Directing, Drama award. The lavishly produced series pulls in over 11 million viewers per episode, each one costing around $5 million to produce.

The extremely decadent show, set in Atlantic City during the 1920s, has proven to be an immense success especially among younger viewers, which has been a surprise to the show’s star, Steve Buscemi: "A lot of young people like the show, and I didn’t necessarily think it would appeal to people in their 20s. I thought the time period would be a turn-off."

Evidently it is quite the opposite.

pw_downton_abbey4.jpgMindful of the tumultuous emotional, political and financial climate of today’s society, scriptwriters, producers and directors have gone back in time and instead mined the past for their inspiration. Strange then that the writers of both Dowton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire have chosen to set their dramas within WWI ravaged Britain and Prohibition America respectively, both incredibly depressing eras. And yet, scores of viewers settle down to watch these pieces of gilded history brought to life before their eyes.

The black days of Britain during WWI saw hundreds of thousands of lives lost and the country ravaged by conflict. Equally, Prohibition America was no cakewalk; it stimulated an explosion of rampant underground, organized criminal activity, brought to a head by the bloody St. Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929.

The characters in these period series live through tremendous adversity and yet, because there are so few alive today who remember such times with first hand accuracy, it gives the screenwriters free reign to romanticise terrible events. They take us on a journey back in time through a parade of glamour, elicit sex and salacious gossip, which allows us as viewers to become totally ensconced in a period of time in which we will never live. In essence, that is what a good period drama is: escapism.


5261365016_8d5209c7ce.jpgAnother major appeal of these historical perspectives is the glorious costumes. While Paz de le Huerta may have been a mess at the Emmys, as Boardwalk's Lucy Danziger (above), she is picture-perfect as a 30s-era glamour gal. Dripping in furs, sporting beautiful drop-waist gowns of silk and lace, Lucy is every bit the mistress and showgirl dancer we'd expect a gangtster/politician to keep on the side.

Juxtaposed against her nemesis for Nucky's affections, the matronly Margaret Shroeder, widowed with children, we see two decidedly different styles from the same era, divided not just by socio-economics, but social mores.

Let's not forget the men, with their three piece suits, silk ties, hats worn everyday instead of just for special occasions -- everyone just looked so much more beautiful back then, at least according to Hollywood.


Stunning attire combined with spectacular backdrops and sets, Boardwalk Empire cost over $5 million to build, but the investment payoffs are huge, as viewers are engulfed in a lifestyle of a bygone era. Now more than ever, with the world in a state of flux, perhaps what we need is a captivating glimpse of the past. TV ratings would agree.

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Creative, multi-talented and incredibly sarcastic, Lydia Morton is a PR person, journalist and blogger. In her free time she writes for various publications, most recently The RITZ Magazine and Quintessentially Magazine.

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