Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, and Laura Carmichael in Downton Abbey (2019)

The Best Period Dramas for All Your Escapism Needs

Period dramas ARE a cure for everything, actually.

I don’t know about you, but there are very few things I enjoy more entertainment-wise than a good period drama. Family troubles, power plays, romance, as well as floor-length gowns or poet’s shirts? It really doesn’t get much better than this.

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So if you’re looking for a new title to marathon and dive into escapism with, here is a list of sixteen that I’ve always particularly enjoyed. From the Middle Ages to the Sixties, you’re bound to find something that interests you!

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

The Pride and Prejudice version that appears here in the 1995 BBC one, starring Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy. While I am partial to the 2005 movie myself, it’s undeniable that this six-episode miniseries remains more faithful to Jane Austen’s masterpiece and features a good chunk of scenes that have become iconic.

North & South (2004)

Another literary adaptation, North & South is based on the 1855 novel of the same name by author Elizabeth Gaskell. Set right in the middle of the Victorian era, the story follows a young woman from the south of England—Margaret Hale, played by Daniela Denby-Ashe—as she and her family relocate to the industrial north of the country. There she meets the broody and socially awkward man du jour, John Thornton—played by Richard Armitage—who owns a cotton mill. A love story, of course, immediately ensues.

Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015)

Is Downton Abbey one of the most monarchist and aristocracy-friendly pieces of media you could ever lay your eyes on? Yes. Do I love it immensely and have rewatched it four times? Also yes. We do contain multitudes. The show’s six seasons follow the people that inhabit the titular Downton Abbey, the countryside seat of the family of the Earl of Grantham and their servants, from the day after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 through World War One. The stories from “upstairs” and “downstairs” include marriages, deaths, troubles with justice, childbirths, and pretty much everything else you can think of—the walls of the Abbey really have seen some serious drama.

The White Queen (2013)

Out of all the book-to-screen adaptations to come from British author Philippa Gregory’s works, which revolve around the period of English history known as the Wars of the Roses and the years immediately before and after, The White Queen remains my favorite. Maybe it’s because Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale absolutely shine as Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort respectively, maybe it’s because I do have a soft spot for the romance between the future King Richard III and Anne Neville, or maybe it’s because as a lover of British period drama, I’m always down for David Oakes playing a good old fashioned villain.

The Crown (2016 – ongoing)

One of the biggest titles in Netflix’s original catalog, The Crown follows the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II from her days as a very young ruler and through the long years of her reign, blending matters of state as well as family drama. One of its most distinguishing features is the revolving cast of actors and actresses, who change every couple of seasons to mark the passage of time—so that Elizabeth starts out being played by Claire Foy and is then played by Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton, while Philip is Matt Smith originally and then Tobias Menzies and Jonathan Pryce.

The Great (2020 – 2023)

Period dramas don’t necessarily have to go for full realism, and they can actually be brilliant when they blend their original historical setting with some more modern elements and a good dose of black humor—which is exactly what The Great has done for three amazing seasons. The show follows the life of Catherine the Great of Russia, played by Elle Fanning, who started out as the consort of Emperor Peter III—played by Nicholas Hoult—and rose to become the country’s longest-reigning monarch.

The Tudors (2007 – 2010)

You can’t write a list focused on period dramas without mentioning The Tudors—truly one of the most famous examples of this genre. While not particularly historically accurate, this colorful take on the life and times of the infamous Henry VIII of England—played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers—and his six wives is pretty much as Period Drama as they come, with elaborate costumes, political intrigue, marriages, and alliances. Plus, a truly iconic performance by Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, which alone is probably worth watching the entire show. 

Anne With an E (2017 – 2019)

Loosely based on Anne of Green Gables, written by author Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908, Anne With an E is a triumph of a different kind of period drama, one not without its pathos but still mostly quiet and introspective, relying heavily on its cast of characters and the relationships that form between them. At the center of it all is Anne herself, played by Amybeth McNulty, whose story begins when she finally gets adopted by elder siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert and goes to live in their farm, Green Gables, in the town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island.

Call the Midwife (2012 – ongoing)

If you love period pieces but also can’t give up a healthy dose of medical drama, then Call the Midwife is the show for you. Set between the late 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, the show follows a group of midwives and nuns at the Nonnatus House, a nursing convent in the East End of London.

Gentleman Jack (2019 – 2022)

While it is true that the overwhelming majority of period dramas center on a heterosexual relationship—with queer love being relegated to the margins if it even is present at all—it doesn’t mean you can’t find products that instead focus on queer characters. Gentleman Jack is exactly this. Based on the diaries of the real-life landowner Anne Lister, who lived in England in the first half of the 19th century, the show follows the life of Anne as she embarks on the business of restoring the estate she has inherited from her uncle and as she sails the course of her love affair with the young Ann Walker.

Outlander (2014 – ongoing)

Another long-running series, Outlander is based on the series of books of the same name by author Diana Gabaldon and follows Claire Randall, a former World War II nurse who during a holiday in Scotland finds herself transported back in time to the 18th century, right during the events of the Jacobite rebellion. And of course, one of the first people she meets after this centuries-long jump back is none other than Jamie Fraser, who will become her husband even across oceans of time.

Bridgerton (2020 – ongoing)

Look, we all know that Bridgerton isn’t exactly the most accurate period piece out there, from the costumes to the actual society it wants to depict. Still, the quests for love and a happy marriage that each of the eight Bridgerton siblings takes on in the middle of London’s Regency-era high society have everything that we want from any good period drama romance—pathos, grand declarations, and never-ending dances.

Victoria (2016 – 2019)

The three seasons of Victoria star Jenna Coleman in the titular role of one of the most famous monarchs in British history. The show starts with Victoria as the young heir to the throne and follows her throughout her life, both political—with changing prime ministers and struggles of all kinds—and personal—chiefest of all her marriage to Prince Albert and the numerous children they had together. While the show tends to gloss over some of the most problematic aspects of Victoria and her reign, it remains a really good period piece, brilliantly acted and costumed.

Dickinson (2019 – 2021)

Dickinson is another great example of a period drama that blends history with modernity. Hailee Steinfeld stars as the titular Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest writers in American literature, and follows her journey through life navigating family and friends, love and sexuality, and the role that a woman is supposed to take on in the society of her time.

War and Peace (2016)

This BBC miniseries is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, which chronicles the lives of a group of Russian nobles in the middle of Napoleon’s advance into the country. Starring Paul Dano, Lily James, and James Norton as three of the story’s main characters—Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Andrei Bolkonsky respectively—the show features amazing costumes and truly great performances, of course, but I’ve also always been captivated by its cinematography and soundtrack. Six episodes that are really worth watching.

The Hollow Crown (2012 – 2016)

You didn’t think we could end this list without some Shakespeare, right? While The Hollow Crown is not technically a TV show—more like a collection of made-for-television movies—I have to include it in this list because I do love Shakespeare’s histories too much not to. The show consists of seven different episodes, the first four being an adaptation of the so-called Henriad—Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V, and the latter three focusing on Shakespeare’s works set during the Wars of the Roses—Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2 and Richard III

(featured image: ITV)


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Author
Benedetta Geddo
Benedetta (she/her) lives in Italy and has been writing about pop culture and entertainment since 2015. She has considered being in fandom a defining character trait since she was in middle school and wasn't old enough to read the fanfiction she was definitely reading and loves dragons, complex magic systems, unhinged female characters, tragic villains and good queer representation. You’ll find her covering everything genre fiction, especially if it’s fantasy-adjacent and even more especially if it’s about ASOIAF. In this Bangtan Sonyeondan sh*t for life.