TV period dramas re-emerge, rewrite history

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While history courses may teach one version of our past, television is establishing a different viewpoint. Some of today’s best dramas are re-examining historically profound events.

FX’s “The Americans” is the most recent drama to use this narrative device. For example, the show’s fourth episode depicted the assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan through a particularly unusual perspective. Following KGB spies who are posing as suburbanite parents in northern Virginia, “The Americans” places audiences in an often uncomfortable and confusing situation. The protagonists are in Cold War opposition to our “home of the brave” — do we root for them or hope for their downfall?

The episode effectively portrays the Soviet panic in face of the potential ramifications of the shooting. Did the Russians do this? Is Reagan dead? Is this war? These are just some of the questions two Russian spies struggle with in an episode highlighting a drastically different viewpoint than what is typically presented in U.S. history textbooks.

Last summer’s HBO drama “The Newsroom” gave audiences a behind-the-scenes look at high-profile news stories of the last few years. The aptly titled “5/1” episode mimicked America’s heartbeat as we first received word of Osama bin Laden’s death. Most Americans remember where they were and what they were doing on the morning of 9/11, but many did not know anyone who died on that fateful day. “5/1” shows the incredible impact bin Laden’s death had on those who suffered the most and were put at greatest risk by the terrorist’s actions.

Most Americans remember where they were and what they were doing on the morning of 9/11.  But most Americans did not know anyone who died on that fateful day. “5/1” shows the incredible impact bin Laden’s death had for those who suffered the most and were put at  the greatest risk by the terrorist’s actions.

AMC’s “Mad Men” frequently takes on sociopolitical issues targeted at the baby boomer generation. “The Grown Ups,” an episode from season three, depicted the day blanketed by despair in America — the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Keeping perfect historical time, “Mad Men” ran an episode on the Nixon v. Kennedy election two seasons prior, where most characters were steadfast Nixon supporters. “Everything is going to be OK. We have a new president and we’re all going to be sad for a little bit,” Don Draper told his children, glued to the television along with the rest of the nation.

Although “Mad Men” contributes little in the way of a fresh perspective, “The Grown Ups” refreshed our collective memory and has allowed contemporary generations a proximity to historical events that would otherwise be unattainable.

By using television as a tool to study the past, audiences are able to consider the historical anecdotes in a different way. The window to the past we call television has revolutionized the way we perceive our nation’s most important moments.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, March 5 print edition. Isabel Jones is a staff writer.  Email her at [email protected]

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1 COMMENT

  1. I loved it.
    Very well written and refreshing to read about some of my favorite shows from a different perspective.
    Look forward to your next piece.

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