Whether you are a student relaxing after exams, a professor done with grading, or just someone with time off for the holidays, the end of the year can be a great time for binge watching television. Here’s some recommendations from the History Department for great shows to add to your streaming video queue:
You’d think that since I study the American West, and have written about and taught courses on the Western, that I’d watch Western themed TV shows. And there are some good TV series.
Deadwood (2004-2007) is set in the Old West of the gold rush in the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. It’s marvelous television, with an odd use of the English language that may not be historically accurate but feels old-timey and gives a gravitas of sorts to the characters. It’s very gritty, with a lot of violence, profanity, and sexuality, but also evocative in the way it plays with the history and legends of the time. Longmire (2012-2015) is more crime genre, set in contemporary Wyoming, and has a strong Western feel. I don’t think it’s as good as Deadwood, but it’s solid. Firefly (2002-2003) and the associated film Serenity (2005) are science fiction, set in a galactic future, and have a lot of Western themes.
But I don’t watch Western TV shows or movies for fun, either classic ones from the past or recent ones. It feels too much like work. The same is true of science fiction. I read a ton of science fiction as a kid, a teenager and an adult. Then I wrote a book on science fiction novels and films set in the American West of the future. Watching and reading sci-fi now feels a bit like work too.
Instead, for fun, I watch crime/detective TV series, and also read some fiction. My favorite has been Wallander. I like both the BBC version in English and the Swedish language version, the latter especially. The two series are based on a series of novels. I also have been enjoying Hinterland (2013-), set in Wales, and Foyle’s War (2002-2015) set in England during World War II. Wallander and Hinterland are “noir” in character. Foyle’s War is more “stiff upper lip.” I have no interest in writing about crime fiction, TV, or film. It’s just fun.
Kate van Liere:
Our family doesn’t get much time to watch TV together, and when we do, we gravitate towards British series, because we have very fond memories of living in England and because the Brits just know how to make good television. About two years ago, disenchanted with the increasingly soapy flavor of Downton Abbey and frustrated that the next Sherlock episode was so long in coming, we discovered the historical detective series Foyle’s War, and it quickly became a family favorite. Inspector Foyle is a police detective in the seaside town of Hastings during the Second World War. 1940s Hastings is a quiet, provincial seaside town, but as the place where the last successful invasion of England was clinched in 1066, it’s a site well chosen to highlight British fears of a new foreign invasion. The setting is as beautifully portrayed as any Merchant Ivory film; if you like English landscapes, you’ll find yourself equally taken in by the posh country houses and the gritty back alleys where the show’s crimes are committed and solved. But it is the thoroughly likeable main characters and the well-crafted plots that make the show so compelling. Inspector Foyle, a brilliant but soft-spoken and self-effacing police detective (close to retirement by 1939, when the series begins, but so indispensable once the war is on that he can no longer think of quitting), shares center stage with two equally likeable, if less brilliant, assistants: Paul, an injured veteran who returns to civilian life as a police detective, and Sam, the spunky young woman who works as Foyle’s driver but often contributes to solving the crimes (and provides some occasional romantic side plots).
Foyle’s War dramatizes many familiar subjects of the wartime home front–child evacuations, air raids, war profiteering, German POWs, spying and sabotage–and quite a few specific undercover operations that are not so widely known, and fun to learn about. True to the detective genre, every episode centers on a crime, which the inimitable Foyle always solves, but the show usually weaves in more moral and political commentary than the classic Whodunit. Foyle commands respect for his moral insight as much as his crime-solving brilliance. Some of the morals are more or less conventional, as when Foyle excoriates war profiteers for disregarding the public good. But the show often challenges conventional notions of patriotism. Foyle will not tolerate acts of real injustice that that are justified by the ‘greater good’ of fighting the Nazis, and he is particularly dogged in pursuing powerful men who think they should be above the law because of their service to the war effort. Sometimes Foyle just seems a bit too brilliant, or too moral, to be entirely plausible, and occasionally the series veers into not-so-subtle moralizing that is more characteristic of American film and television. This happens especially in the later episodes, set after the war, where it seemed to me some of the charm of the early series was starting to wear off. I have still not watched the final episodes. But even if these don’t thrill me as much as the first ones did, this is an exceptionally enjoyable series.
William Van Vugt:
Wolf Hall is surely the best TV series ever. This is true for several reasons. First, no one can make up stories more fascinating than the history behind this series, which features Thomas Cromwell as the central figure, as presented by Hillary Mantel in her book by this title. The people and events in England during the time of Henry VIII and the Reformation are some of the most dramatic and formative in world history. Second, the lead actor, Mark Rylance, is truly brilliant: he can say more with a single raised eyebrow than most actors can say in an entire soliloquy. And finally, the story is more relevant to today than one might think. Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith’s son who rose to the highest rank in government below the king because of his abilities. He was more clever and able than the king and aristocracy that he served–and in several ways more virtuous–and yet we know what ultimately happens to him. He was destroyed by people who merely had the wealth and power that came with their high birth. People born to privilege had control of the government and the country, and they did whatever they could to expand their wealth and power, at the expense of more ordinary people like Cromwell. And they made some disastrous decisions that only wasted resources on senseless wars, increased inequality, and created social misery. One would think that after 500 years we would see more progress, but I see too many similarities in this new millennium, and the recent election—especially the common assumption that people with merely great wealth deserve to rule. The lessons of Wolf Hall are “Huge.”
My favorite Netflix binge, House of Cards, of course! Sure it’s melodramatic. Sure it has cringing plot twists recycled from afternoon soap operas. But the sets are spiffier! Sure there is only hero–Freddy, the barbecue guy. Sure, everyone else exhibits reptilian moral sensitivity. Sure it plants a human Jurassic Park in the District of Columbia. What could be implausible about any of this?
It’s the historian in me that finds Frank and Claire’s little shop of horrors so fascinating. It’s an alternative history where we can speculate about what would have happened if Cesare Borgia had married Catherine d’Medici, or Jack the Ripper had had political ambitions inspired by a life with Lizzie Borden. Or, if Lady Macbeth met Tony Soprano.
During a political campaign such as we’ve seen this year, House of Cards serves as a reminder that things could be worse. Or, could they?
This favorite binge is subject to change in the near future. I recently heard there will be 460 episodes of Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting available on Netflix–230 hours of happy trees with friends in the forest!!