TV dramas make history tolerable

Photo by Sara Schmitt

I hated history class in school. Names and dates only served to boost the long-gone egos of those who used to be in charge. Nothing could make me care. Television proved me wrong.

History class made me memorize that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 but not that he started the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It had me learn Egyptian mythology to death but didn’t mention any of the rest of Africa. It taught that Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms but didn’t say a single thing about what he did. History class was random, incomplete and a waste of time. On the other hand, television brings empathy, one of the hundred things textbooks are useless for. It makes people care.

Class taught me that the Battles of Pharsalus, Philippi and Actium existed, and that was about it. Then I watched “Rome.”

I learned that Henry VIII split the Church, but I never bothered reading the names of his wives or even how many I’s were in his Roman numeral. Then I watched “The Tudors.”

It was briefly mentioned that “there was corruption in the Church circa 1500 A.D.,” and Cesare Borgia was brought up once as a minor character. Then I watched “The Borgias” and then “Borgia.”

Now, I can give the political climate leading up to each Roman battle. I can name Henry’s six wives in order — which was a Quiz Bowl question in eighth grade. I realize that “corruption in the Church” and papal nepotism, lechery, debauchery and greed carry different weights and that Cesare was kind of important.

The only reason I know any of this is that HBO, Showtime and Netflix put more effort into each of those 127 hours of television than 12 years of history teachers ever put into their lectures. Obviously, that’s an unfair comparison: my junior-year history teacher hand-wrote notes on the projector glass for half a year before learning he could just project his notes directly. That took immeasurable effort on his part.

Premium TV has money to dump to make any show good, sure. But good TV is not great TV, and great TV is what people remember, research and rewatch. For example, the director of “Rome,” Bruno Heller, kept James Purefoy’s standout performances on ice during season one to channel how actual Marc Antony felt during the First Triumvirate, when Julius Caesar didn’t let him do anything fun. This made for an amazing season two where Purefoy/Antony commanded the screen as triumvir, finally in charge. And it worked: I will never forget Antony’s mindset from the defeat of Vercingetorix in Gaul all the way to his final moments in Egypt. History Channel has nothing on that.

Seeing Philippi with real humans instead of as words in a textbook made the battle stick for me. Seeing Brutus and Cassius with an army made me realize they actually did something after killing Caesar. Sure, Brutus did not actually go mano a 18,000 in real life, but him going out like a G is permanently etched in my brain. The factual context of the battle is in my long-term memory. That is not memorization; that’s learning, an event foreign to history class.

Hey, maybe “Rome” was incorrect in suggesting that Caesarion was not the son of Caesar and was not killed as Octavian ordered. Yes, Henry VIII probably forced Anne Boleyn into marrying him rather than being actively seduced by her as portrayed in “The Tudors.” I really hope Caterina Sforza grabbed her gonads at Cesare during his siege of Forli as she did in both Borgia shows because that would have been hilarious.

Without these less-than-historical plot points, I would not have cared as much. So sprinkle TV history with rumors and dramatizations, make it interesting enough for a broader audience rather than just for career historians. Those who are inspired will do the research, fact-check and for once care about history, the most boring subject in history.

Since my first draft of this piece, Netflix released 10,000 shows, a few of which I’ve checked out. The coronation of Her Majesty the Queen set to Prince Edward’s narration in “The Crown” was one of the most transcendent things I have ever experienced: I had to pause for an hour after “Zadok the Priest” to reassess myself. I also realized her dad, King George VI, was the guy in “The King’s Speech,” which I must have tuned out all the details of. And now here I am, a month later at 3 a.m., watching video of Lilibet’s actual coronation and hoping I get invited to the next one.

“Medici” was as historically accurate as stealing the Declaration of Independence, but it inspired me to fact-check and then wonder why they did not make a show on Lorenzo the Great instead, opting for his boring granddad Cosimo — though maybe that will be season two.

“Roman Empire” is apparently a documentary (snooze), so I will not be learning about Commodus and the fall of the Roman Empire anytime soon. Good, perhaps; not great.

There is more than Eurocentric history in the annals, and there should be more than Eurocentric period dramas. Something barely historical like “The Get Down,” centered in 1977 South Bronx, is enough to get the cogs spinning on how real and violent but also musical and creative it was then and there.

Therefore, I am of the opinion that every significant past era from every culture that has ever been should eventually be a show on premium television.

Also that we watch TV instead of go to history class.