From Harlots to Medici: A Summary of All of the TV Costume Dramas I've Watched or Half-Watched

Images via FX, Netflix and Hulu.
Images via FX, Netflix and Hulu.

It’s been a long winter—the kind of winter that demands the comfort of wrapping yourself up in romantic visions of the past; the particular kind of comfort that’s only found in bad history, good costumes, and a variety of regional British accents. Even though I don’t live in a part of the country that has “winter” per se, cold weather is the only possible reason that I can think of to excuse the obscene amount of period television—much of truly terrible—I’ve consumed in the past months.


To be clear, I’m not necessarily suggesting that any of these shows are “good” in the critical and common use of the word. Some of them are delightfully bad and some, well, I’m just positing that they exist and I have watched them or, at least, half-watched them. The forces of the universe compel me to watch costume dramas regardless of quality and since it’s been a while since the BBC produced a mini-series that I could watch on repeat (give me another North & South!), here’s a sampling of what I’ve forced myself to watch.


Harlots is Hulu’s latest entry into the costume drama but instead of soft-core romance, the show offers a delightfully earthy take on eighteenth-century prostitution. Inspired by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual directory published through most of the second half of the eighteenth century that described the sexual specialties of the neighborhood’s best-known whores, the show stars Samantha Morton as Margaret Wells, a no-nonsense brothel owner who has pulled herself up from the proverbial gutter. Jessica Brown Findlay sheds the doe-eyed innocence of Downton Abbey’s Lady Sibyl and here plays Charlotte Wells, Margaret’s daughter, who has capitalized on her mother’s working knowledge of the flesh and climbed the prostitute social ladder from common whore to much-desired courtesan. Eloise Smyth plays Margaret’s sensitive younger daughter whose virginity is twice auctioned off to the highest bidder while Lesley Manville is Lydia Quigley, Margaret’s scheming rival madam.


Created by Moira Buffini and Alison Newman, Harlots is written, directed, and produced by an all-women team. It’s clear that the show was made by women; its depiction of sex (there’s obviously a lot of it) is simultaneously performative, funny, and practical. There’s plenty of nudity but it too feels necessary rather than bodies blatantly being offered up for the delight of the gaze. Whoring is treated as labor—the work of women whom history has allowed few other choices—and the showrunners have no interest in moralizing the trade or any of the kinks they depict (Kate Fleetwood as the very businesslike S&M mistress Nancy Birch stands out). That’s not to say that the show isn’t visually appealing; like any show making its bid to be a respectable costume drama, the set and costuming are both elaborate and striking, particularly the employment of both to reiterate the show’s underlying narratives: class and gender.

At its heart, Harlots is a show about value, particularly the value of poor women. There’s a Peaky Blinders-esque streak running through Harlots: a criminal enterprise built by a uniquely indefatigable and visionary individual. Like Cillian Murphy, Morton plays that role well; she has that particular blend of aristocratic ease and working-class grit that these shows need to work. But it also means that Morton has some terrible lines to deliver and a backstory that’s more melodramatic than Moll Flanders. Morton’s Wells reminds her daughters that her mother sold her to a madam at the young age of ten for a pair of shoes. At one point, Morton looks into the dirty London skyline and says, “This city is made from our flesh, every brick, every beam. We’ll have our piece of it.” Brown Findlay also has her share of maudlin lines but the two actresses are committed and talented enough to make it work.

Should You Watch It: Yes. It debuts on March 29.

Mercy Street

If you ever wondered what would happen if Ted Mosby was a Union doctor in the middle of the Civil War, Mercy Street has the answer. The show—one part Civil War drama, one part hospital drama, and one part romance—has everything a Civil War enthusiast could ask for. After having met someone’s mother, Ted Mosby is transported into the past (IMDB tells me that his real name is Josh Radnor) where he plays Dr. Jed Foster, a Maryland-born doctor working at a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Ted doesn’t have much of an opinion about slavery, but the rich abolitionist-turned-nurse Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) does. She slowly changes his mind. In between the budding romance, there are plenty of dying soldiers, amputations, Confederate plots, and dresses with a large number of buttons.


In short, it’s pretty standard American Civil War stuff. The only departure from the typical romantic narrative about the preservation of the Union is that Mercy Street recognizes that the Civil War was about slavery and bothers to tell the stories of slaves in the occupied South. The first season handles the plight of the contraband—slaves who escaped the Confederate States for occupied territory—exploring their liminal status and taking on the shaky concept of freedom. In season two, the very good Patina Miller plays Charlotte Jenkins, a black abolitionist who arrives in Alexandria with the purpose of teaching the contraband how to be free. It’s that departure, coupled with Norbert Leon Butz’s comedically incompetent Dr. Hale, that makes Mercy Street worth its weight in crinolines.

Should You Watch It: To my dismay, PBS just canceled Mercy Street, but sure, watch the two existing seasons. Everyone’s southern accents are terrible but I’ll excuse Donna Murphy.


Medici: Masters of Florence

Please meet the worst show on television. The Medici is so resplendent in its camp, so bad in its acting, and so ridiculous in its writing that I naturally binge-watched every single episode. Medici is Netflix’s latest addition to the “lusty dynastic family” subgenre of period television which was already a verdant field filled with beautiful flowers like Borgia and The Tudors. Like all of these shows, Medici relies more on prestige casting and good looks than substance. Dustin Hoffman plays the mysteriously murdered pere Medici, while Robb Stark (Richard Madden) plays a Cosimo de’ Medici who is, apparently, sometimes Scottish (and in what can only be described as a cruel joke, the actor who played Walder Frey was cast as Cosimo’s father-in-law, making for a very anxious wedding scene).


Cosimo here isn’t the Cosimo of history—a personally boring banker who commissioned some important works of art and fathered a person known as Piero the Gouty—he’s the Cosimo of Netflix. As such, he’s a creative soul whose artistry was torn from him by his domineering father (Hoffman seems so bored); banking and family are the stuff of obligation. But will Cosimo be held down? No, he endures and wears a lot of fur-lined tunics. He also broods, he schemes, he alone see the mastery of Donatello, he has sex with prostitutes, and he is mesmerized when Brunelleschi breaks that fucking egg. He’s also, weirdly, framed as a “job creator” which seems like an unnecessary political creep into my escapist television.

How does Robb Stark convey all of these complex emotions, you might ask? He looks into the distance, sometimes he squints, sometimes he looks slightly upward to the heavens. This show could easily be called Robb Stark Broods in Florence. This is the only look that the Lord of Winterfell has:

Image via Netflix.
Image via Netflix.
Image via Tumblr.

Should You Watch It: That’s a question only you can answer.


What is this show about? I don’t know, I can’t understand a word Tom Hardy says. From what I can gather, Tom Hardy wears hats, walks around London, and regularly takes his shirt off. There’s a whole plot line involving incest. I guess that’s why it’s called Taboo?


Should You Watch It: If you’re a fan of Tom Hardy and can’t wait for Peaky Blinders to return, then sure.


Hmmmm....Imagine a show that lasts 63 years and 216 days.

Should You Watch It: Hmmmm....Rufus Sewell and Eve Myles are in it. When is Wolf Hall coming back?

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Taboo was great. A bit weird, and DEFINITELY fucking brutal, but well worth watching in the end.

If great costumes are your reason though, definitely not. Everyone is basically wearing mud-covered black...and occasionally just feathers and a loincloth.