Recently, the University of Alabama hosted a screening of The Free State of Jones, featuring comments and a Q&A with historian Victoria Bynum, the author of the book on which the film is loosely based. It was interesting to see the film for a second time, as it validated most of the perceptions I had after my first viewing (you can read the review I wrote then here), although I felt the Reconstruction scenes worked better upon a second viewing than I did initially. If you have not seen it yet, be sure to catch it on disc or cable.
Anyway, the event got me thinking about more recent Hollywood stabs at history. During this past award season, exceptional films like Dunkirk and Darkest Hour received much warranted awards and nominations (I highly recommend them both, and Gary Oldman was stunningly effective as Churchill). But ever since the cancellation of PBS’s Mercy Street and WGN’s Underground it seems to me that there has been a dearth of quality, high-profile history-based dramas on television.
(Thankfully, it appears that the creators of HBO’s Game of Thrones have backed away (at least temporarily) from their proposed series featuring an alternate timeline in which the South wins the Civil War, turning their attentions instead on a new set of Star Wars films. I like that idea MUCH better).
Still, in the last few months there have been three big budget TV shows that have caught my attention: The second season return of NBC’s Timeless, TNT’s limited series, The Alienist, and the best of the three, Netflix’s limited series, Godless.
The first season of Timeless was pretty harmless fluff, featuring a few episodes that were truly riveting. I’m not a big fan of conspiracy-driven shows (the stand-alone episodes of The X-Files are the best ones, and I’ll debate anyone on that). Thus, Timeless’s focus on an Illuminati-like organization’s attempt to control the world (“Rittenhouse”) became a bit annoying as our three time traveling heroes (Abigail Spencer, Malcolm Barrett, and Matt Lanter) unraveled more and more of the shadow ageny’s secrets and reasons for trying to alter history. Further, Spencer’s character, historian Lucy Preston, was depicted as far too much of an expert on every period of time in history, having readily retrievable knowledge about minutia that only a specialist on a particular topic would have (to be fair, the show can’t have a regiment of historians, each with their own specialities). These quibbles aside, I watched almost all of the first season as mindless entertainment. You can catch up with it all by streaming it on Hulu.
NBC was ready to cancel the show after one season, but it was saved by social media outcry (which I wish could have saved the much more valuable Mercy Street), and thus season two premiered last Sunday. The first episode took our heroes into World War I in the midst of American troops fighting at St. Mihiel.
As usual, the producers did their homework and got much of the details correct, focusing on Marie and Irene Curie (just in time for Women’s History Month), their nursing efforts, and their technologically advanced mobile X-ray. NBC’s budget was reflected in the nice visuals of a charred WWI landscape, and quick glances at aerial dogfights over the trenches. It all looked pretty good and bodes well for future episodes.
Yet the thing that has me the most excited about the second season of Timeless is that Smithsonian is going to be commenting each week on each episode’s historic accuracy. That should prove interesting to follow.
But speaking of time travel, I have always joked in my classes that whenever I hear blowhards like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck criticise the progressive movement, I wish I could put them in a time machine and drop them somewhere in Gilded Age New York. I wonder how they would feel about Progressivism after living in the fetid slums, working in a sweatshop in disgusting and dangerous conditions for god-awfully long hours and unfairly low pay, all while seeing the “robber barons” ostentatiously displaying the unprecedented wealth they derived from the misery of the impoverished. I have a feeling the progressive movement might appear a little bit more appealing to them, and perhaps it would give them a different outlook on current events.
(PBS recently aired an American Experience episode on the Gilded Age, disappointingly focusing almost exclusively on the barons and almost completely ignoring the era’s racial dynamics).
Anyway, it is this Gilded Age New York that TNT’s The Alienist effecitvely re-creates. Set in 1896, the limited series is about a psychologist (Daniel Bruhl), a newspaper journalist (Luke Evans), and a police stenographer (the always effective Dakota Fanning) teaming up with two police detectives (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) to track down a serial killer. Based on a series of novels that are themselves based loosely on actual people, the show depicts the use of then cutting edge investigative techniques, such as finger printing and criminal profiling. The events are completely fictional, but the world the characters inhabit is stunningly and accurately brought to life.
One of The Alienist’s merits is how Fanning’s character, Sara Howard, is career-driven in a place and time when women pursuing a professional career were a rarity.
She confidently pushes back at workplace condescension and mistreatment (#MeToo in 1896), and yet simultaneously and realistically deals with her conflicted desires to adhere to societal pressures to fall in love, quit work, and start a family. Fanning’s performance in the role of a woman ahead of her time, protecting herself behind a bland and no-nonsense exterior, is a strength.
As a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, I especially enjoy his presence as the NYC Police Commissioner determined to clean up police corruption and take on both political and criminal bosses. This is accurate, though actor Brian Geraghty plays Roosevelt as too subdued, depriving the show of the energetic gusto that it sorely lacks. TR was a force-of-nature, and thus his personality should dominate every scene in which he appears. Sadly, that is not the case. Yet The Alienist captures TR’s virtues and has some good scenes between him and JP Morgan (Micheal Ironside, in some good makeup) that nicely foreshadow the hostility the men would have towards each other when TR ascended to the White House and battled Morgan’s horizontally integrated banking trust.
Unfortunately, ten episodes has proven too long to tell the show’s story and after eight episodes I am anxious for it to end (yet still hoping the ending will be rewarding). It is dark and brooding, increasingly disjointed, and besides Fanning, lacks performances that keep you glued to the screen. I’m still hooked, but it feels a little like a slog.
Yet it is still compelling television that you should catch because of how well it depicts Gilded Age New York and what it says about that time in our history. From the ridiculously ornate and ostentatious homes of the super wealthy, to the slums and seething nastiness of the streets, the enormous disparity between classes is impressively demonstrated in The Alienist, reminding us of how Progressivism eventually saved American capitalism from itself.
You can catch up with the series by streaming it at TNT’s site.
From a purely entertainment perspective (but not historical), however, the best of these recent shows is Netflix’s limited series Godless. Set in a Gilded Age western town in which most of the men have been killed in a mining disaster, the show was advertised as a feminist take on the Western, as the women run the town and defend themselves from some VERY bad men. [Warning: the trailer below drops one F-bomb]
Yet that’s not exactly what you get. In the end, Godless is a pretty standard Western dominated by dastardly but complex bad guys, and emotionally traumatized good guys. Which isn’t a bad thing, it is just not as advertised (which is not the fault of the show’s creators).
I discovered Godless because of historian Megan Kate Nelson’s article for the Civil War Monitor about the lack of Civil War battles and campaigns in western movies. Of course she is right, although I think she is a bit harsh on Sergio Leone’s cinematic masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and her discussion of how Civil War animosities do often drive the tensions in many western films glaringly misses such classics as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Shane.
As with those classics, almost every character in Godless is interesting and well acted, and in my mind the series rivals Lonesome Dove as riveting television (yes, it is that good). It also manages to deliver some surprises, one of which is its rather conventional ending. Yet unfortunately, the show’s most interesting characters are the ones that are explored the least—the females—which is all the more frustrating given how the series was advertised. Getting an even bigger shaft is a local community of former Buffalo Soldiers! Ugh! What could have been!
Yet the most troubling aspect of Godless is the level of graphic violence. The “Old West” has always been romanticized and depicted as more violent than it actually was. In the wake of the Florida school shooting and the fresh energy that high school students have injected into the gun control movement, this sort of depiction of the West is all the more untimely (to be fair, it was released before the events in Florida).
Gun control laws have been common throughout the history of the United States (look for an upcoming article about this from me soon) and in fact were pretty rigorously enforced in Western towns. Yet Godless indulges in just about every cliché we have ever had about the “Wild West” frontier, and ramps it up to a ridiculous level.
The villains, (led by Jeff Daniels in a wickedly good performance) go around doing things that would have brought down upon them the full weight of the US government and military.
Since the show is set in New Mexico, a student of history can’t help but think about how the territorial governor (Civil War general and author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace) got directly involved in the capture of Billy the Kid, yet in Godless a large group of criminals is able to go around practically unopposed (except by our heroes) doing things that Billy Bonney would have never even dreamed of in his most violent nightmares. Further, the climactic battle scene is largely a nonsensical mess (though nevertheless thrilling).
Godless didn’t create our myth of the Old West, but it certainly sustains and significantly adds to it. Still, if you can divorce yourself from all that and embrace Godless as a “shoot ’em up” with plenty of interesting characters, uniformly strong performances (particularly by Merrit Wever, Michelle Dockery, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and beautiful cinematography, do not miss this one. It is well-worth every penny you paid for your Netflix subscription.
Now, I think I’ll go watch the recent episodes of Drunk History. Did you see the one featuring the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, 1963? Brilliant, and very timely just now when we need a reminder of what younger generations have done in our history to bring power and life to a movement.