Fun shows set in the past
November 11, 2019 2:21 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I are looking for a series to watch on Netflix or Prime that we both enjoy. This is difficult. We've narrowed it down to a) must be set in the past and pay attention to historical details, and b) should have interesting characters you can root for and intelligent plot. Humour is also good. So far we have enjoyed Mad Men and Life on Mars (British version) as well as House of Cards (British version).

We also like mystery, crime, political events, intrigue. Like...something about Bletchley Park might be interesting?

We watched Mind Hunter (FBI profilers in the 70s) but the characters were so anaemically cerebral, so hard to root for. The historical stuff and the crime elements were interesting though.

We tried three episodes of Downton Abbey, but in the 3rd one everyone was so sleazy and horrible. It's the one where the Turkish guy dies while coercing the girl into having sex with him. Everyone is all kinds of mean to each other. I just hated everyone in that episode. Maybe I should persevere?

Anyway, thank you for your recommendations!
posted by Omnomnom to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Halt and Catch Fire

About the early PC industry into the first dot-com boom, this was originally commissioned as a follow-on to Mad Men. Try to give it until mid-second season to make up your mind, if you have issues with the first.
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:23 PM on November 11, 2019 [12 favorites]

Call the Midwife is amazing. BBC show. Starts in the late 1950s. Lots of characters who are just good people. Focuses on midwives caring for patients living in poverty. It’s based on the memoirs of a woman who was a midwife then.
posted by FencingGal at 2:25 PM on November 11, 2019 [28 favorites]

Call the Midwife is a true gem of a show. Nth forever.
posted by phunniemee at 2:26 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

El Ministerio del Tiempo might be fun for you.
posted by PussKillian at 2:27 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Have you tried The Crown? It’s gloriously detailed in set and costume and I enjoyed it despite not being a fan of monarchy in reality. Less intrigue than House of Cards but more than Downton Abbey.
posted by sallybrown at 2:28 PM on November 11, 2019 [8 favorites]

Have you seen The Crown?
posted by theodolite at 2:28 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Derry Girls” is a comedy about foul-mouthed but essentially harmless teens in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the 1990’s.
posted by baseballpajamas at 2:30 PM on November 11, 2019 [14 favorites]

If it doesn't have to be far in the past, Derry Girls is great.
posted by Ufez Jones at 2:30 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Peaky-fookin'-Blinders is fantastic, if you don't mind a bit of the old ultraviolence. It's on Netflix.
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:33 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Giant caveat that I haven't actually seen it, but for what it's worth, The Bletchley Circle is about a group of women who worked together at Bletchley Park and reunite a few years after the war to Solve Crimes.
posted by jameaterblues at 2:35 PM on November 11, 2019 [21 favorites]

Like...something about Bletchley Park might be interesting?

There is an ITV series about Bletchley Park called The Bletchley Circle, starring Anna Maxwell Martin.
posted by cpatterson at 2:36 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

These are sort of "light cop" but the Murdoch Mysteries series is now into its 13th season. It's a Toronto cop procedural, set in Toronto at the turn of the last century more or less. Murdoch is a sort of cerebral detective who likes to invent things. There are some cameos by real life people. You like most of the characters. There's a lot of neat detail. There's some light romance and decent attention to being inclusive and diverse even though that was not the make-up of the police force of the time (there's a female coroner who is terrific). A little humorous. Canadian show and available on Prime (and also on Hoopla sometimes and you can find it in DVDs if that's your thing). I LOVED Life on Mars and will be reading along here with interest. I like Peaky Blinders but yeah, the ultraviolence....
posted by jessamyn at 2:36 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Not currently on netflix or prime (except for purchase) but Foyle's War is one you can consider for the future should it be available for you to watch in your desired format.
posted by acidnova at 2:40 PM on November 11, 2019 [9 favorites]

I, Claudius is a classic British series about the early Roman emperors, full of humor, intrigue, and murder. Unfortunately, only the first season seems to be available on Prime.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 2:44 PM on November 11, 2019 [8 favorites]

The Singing Detective is worth a look. (And the Thin Man films, if movies set in the time that they were made, which is now in the past, is an option.)
posted by eotvos at 2:45 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Crown and Victoria form an interesting pairing. Both are mildly fictionalized, and you can tell they have a bigger budget for the Crown. Some of the same actors in both shows, too, because there are only so many British actors.

Victoria has more storylines about servants that you may or may not care about, plus Victoria Meets Every Famous 1800’s Person (though to be fair she did meet a lot of them).
posted by Huffy Puffy at 2:49 PM on November 11, 2019

Not sure if "relatively recent past" is what you're looking for, but Pose is wonderful. Season 1 is set in 1987-1988, while Season 2 begins in 1990.

Going back a bit further, David Simon's The Deuce was solid, if not quite up to the level of The Wire.

Manhattan was IMHO a criminally underrated drama that suffered from being on a network nobody watched. Not as many laugh out loud moments as the other two, but enjoyable.
posted by tonycpsu at 2:54 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

No mystery/crime/intrigue elements but The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel should scratch a lot of your itches.
posted by acidnova at 2:56 PM on November 11, 2019 [16 favorites]

Peaky Blinders checks all of your boxes. It does have quite a lot of violence, but if that’s not a dealbreaker, it’s worth giving a try. Politics and political maneuvering occur throughout the show on a national level as well as a more local level—Winston Churchill is an occasional recurring character.
posted by epj at 3:01 PM on November 11, 2019

The Hour is on Prime, don't know if it's free. Set in a British newsroom during the 1950s.
posted by muddgirl at 3:01 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Gentleman Jack, if you have access to wherever it's streaming right now.

Outlander is multiple periods, so you get bang for buck there.

GLOW is set in the 80s.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is alternate-universe period.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:11 PM on November 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

It's a crime that I've gotten this far down and no one's mentioned Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries!! 1920's woman detective in Melborne Australia. 3 Seasons on Netflix, absolutely delightful.

I believe Prime also has the Father Brown mysteries, which are good. Nthing Marvelous Mrs Maisel
posted by Caravantea at 3:12 PM on November 11, 2019 [19 favorites]

Not sure if The Paradise is on Netflix still, but it’s about a young shop assistant with high entrepreneurial aspirations in the late 1800’s, and I found it very soothing and charming. There’s a bonus feature just about getting all the clothes and feel to be period-appropriate.

Seconding Foyle’s War And Miss Fisher, which are both great.
posted by tchemgrrl at 3:31 PM on November 11, 2019

Nthing Miss Fisher and the spinoff, Miss Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries set in swingin' 1964.
posted by JoeZydeco at 3:52 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

You might like The Man In The High Castle. Alternate history with great design showing what America might look like had the Germans and Japanese won WWII. A little sci-fi-ish but some interesting characters - especially among the German and the Japanese - and a very twisty story.
posted by lpsguy at 4:34 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, on Amazon Prime Video. It’s about a housewife in 1950’s Manhattan who falls into becoming a stand-up comic. The production design is impeccable, the dialogue is crackling and witty, the actors are almost all great, and it is very detailed in showing what life was like for this stratum of society at the time.
posted by ejs at 4:34 PM on November 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

My husband and I have enjoyed watching Poldark the past few years.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 4:46 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Not a show, but Gosford Park is back on Netflix. Set in the 1930s, very detailed study of the intrigue of the upper classes as well as the "downstairs" servants. The characters are intelligent and sharply drawn, but I don't know that I would root for them, as they are all pretty awful, especially the aristocrats. The servants are not much better. Same screenwriter as Downton Abbey (Julian Fellowes) -- I hated Downton Abbey but loved Gosford Park. YMMV.

Seconding Call the Midwife, and adding Bramwell, a hidden gem of a show about a woman doctor in the 1890s. She comes from an upper-class background, goes to medical school against societal expectations, and starts a charity hospital. It's similar to Call the Midwife, but a few generations earlier.
posted by basalganglia at 5:11 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I thought The Knick was pretty excellent, and so did pretty much everyone else that I know who watched it.
posted by Venadium at 5:17 PM on November 11, 2019 [7 favorites]

posted by cocoagirl at 5:54 PM on November 11, 2019 [6 favorites]

Pushing Daisies was more light-hearted in the mystery genre. It had bad timing with the writers’ strike. We also enjoyed Bletchley Circle.
posted by childofTethys at 7:44 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seconding Pushing Daisies. Recommend watching with a slice of pie.
posted by acidnova at 7:47 PM on November 11, 2019

It looks like Amazon Prime has only season 4, but if you want a detective show set really far in the past, Cadfael might work for you. It's set a little after the first crusade and it's about a monk who ends up investigating various crimes. I've only ever seen a single episode, but it was good and my wife swears by it.
posted by Hactar at 10:17 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have no idea if it's on streaming or not, but the Australian series A Place To Call Home hits your buttons, at least in the first 2 seasons. (It reboots into a ridiculously melodramatic soap opera after that point.) A Jewish woman moves from Europe to rural Australia in the years after World War 2 and builds a life in a small town near Sydney. It's a very different picture of Australian culture than you get from exported Aussie films, more of a class-obsessed respectable English village than Crocodile Dundee.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:31 PM on November 11, 2019

considering the cast and the topic and the setting, i expected to devour peaky blinders in a single deathmarch marathon sitting, but i couldn't even get through the first episode. it was like watching paint dry. attractive paint, yes, but still.

however the crown is excellent and i cannot possibly recommend it strongly enough.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:22 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

80% of this will be reiterating the above, but:
- Halt and Catch Fire had a rocky first 4-6 episodes but then becomes amazing. It feels like the network was forcing the producers to be "just like Mad Men" early on. As soon as they let go it was tremendous. Little bonus here for you: if you've seen the film Argo, there is a couple in it that also play a couple in Halt and Catch Fire. It's almost like we're seeing them 5 years later.
- The Bletchly Circle will totally scratch every itch you have listed.
- Outlander mostly lacks the mystery elements but the history is excellent.
- No one has mentioned it on here but Harlots. OMG Harlots. It is a show about courtesans and prostitutes in mid-1700s London. It is written and directed by women and has zero male gaze. Its historical authenticity is impressive, and since one out of every three women made some money from prostitution at the time, it covers every stripe of society. There is also a mystery that starts a few episodes in. I think it's on Hulu in the US, though.
posted by rednikki at 12:52 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Taboo is delightfully grim. Came out in 2017, and it's set in London in 1814 when the East India Company had a lot of clout. Tom Hardy does a nice grumbly job leading the cast. Only one season out so far, but there are promises of more.
posted by elected_potato at 12:56 AM on November 12, 2019

I'm not sure if it's on Netflix in the US and it isn't 100% set in the past but Timeless is great. They spend the majority of each episode in a different historical era, do seem to have made an effort to get the details right and the characters are interesting and intelligent people. There are two seasons and a double episode finale. During the 2nd season all the episodes focussed on historical people who were either women or people of colour.
posted by *becca* at 1:50 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

It doesn't really scratch the humor itch, but I thoroughly enjoyed "Un Village Francais" about a French village and how it copes with the Occupation in WWII.
posted by eleslie at 2:12 AM on November 12, 2019

The BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall is excellent and has lots of political events and intrigue.
posted by crocomancer at 2:36 AM on November 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

It's almost never funny, but The Americans (free on Prime) satisfies your first 2 criteria.
An FX original series, The Americans is a period drama about the complex marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington D.C. shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected President.
posted by kingless at 5:24 AM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Inspector George Gently is fun. 1960s detective series set in the north of England.
posted by EllaEm at 9:50 AM on November 12, 2019

It's a bit out of left field, but I recently binged Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung and I think it ticks a lot of your boxes. It's set in early 19th century Korea and, as far as I can tell, is relatively true to the period despite being a fictionalized version of it. Plenty of political/palace intrigue, some mystery, and a number of interesting characters, including the lead (Goo Hae-Ryung), one of her superiors, and the crown prince. There are dollops of humor and plenty of people being kind to one another.

The only caveat was that I found the main male lead/love interest to be a bit one-dimensional and would have preferred the romance to have ended differently, but for me it didn't unduly spoil my overall enjoyment of the story. It also has gorgeous costumes and sets if you like that sort of thing.
posted by Preserver at 10:01 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Since you have so many recs now, I'd like to recommend a free service which is very helpful for people who subscribe to multiple streaming platformsSincee or channels.

Just Watch

It has information available for almost 40 countries. It makes it easy to see where a particular show/movie is available as well as some other nice features.
posted by acidnova at 11:33 AM on November 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

Assuming a high volume of profanity doesn't inhibit your fun, and you didn't already see it back in the early 2000's, Deadwood definitely checks your boxes. Especially historical detail and interesting characters. Also check out the commentary at AV Club by Emily Todd van der Werff, who explains why is the best TV series ever.
posted by wps98 at 12:03 PM on November 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

First see the movie "Anonymous" with the 'real' story about just who Shake-speare was and the royalty high jinks back in the day.
Then watch the following keeping in mind that Shake-speare the playwright was most likely a very educated royalty and not an illiterate actor:
Shakespeare Uncovered - the plays explained by the actors who performed them (3 seasons, so far!)
Slings & Arrows - Canadian Shakespeare theater group and 3 seasons of the their on and off stage dramas & comedies
Shakespeare Retold - most excellent retelling of 4 of the better known plays
posted by Mesaverdian at 3:26 PM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh man I almost forgot The Same Sky, a German miniseries that's available on American Netflix (has English subtitles) (Trailer)

The show takes place in East and West Berlin in 1974 and is based on "Operation Romeo", a Stasi operation to infiltrate West German intelligence operations by romantic means.

It's a pretty serious show but a lot of fun at the same time.

Lots of people also recommend Babylon Berlin, but I haven't watched this one yet.
posted by JoeZydeco at 4:57 PM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Babylon Berlin is a high budget period drama. CW for sexual coercion and (near) child abuse. Women characters do not have a pleasant time in this series. However, the leads (most of the characters, I think) are much easier to root for than, say, the Peaky Blinders set (ymmv) who all stress me the eff out. I don't recall it being particularly funny but it wasn't super grim either. Crime + mystery, politics, plus some really interesting music scenes at various clubs.
posted by automatic cabinet at 7:32 PM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Jeeves and Wooster. Difficult to go wrong with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.
posted by wires at 7:39 PM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Yes, Babylon Berlin is grim, but the period detail is stunning and immersive to the level of Mad Men.

The Last Kingdom, also on Netflix, is a romp set in the time of Alfred the Great, and while it's not detail-authentic, it does get into the politics and priorities of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and intricately fills out the motivations of historical figures of whom we have only sparse records.
posted by bendybendy at 4:10 AM on November 13, 2019

One more recommendation for the incredibly period-immersive and warm and funny Mrs. Maisel.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:17 AM on November 13, 2019

Also, you might enjoy dipping into the pseudohistorical comedy of Blackadder.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:19 AM on November 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know about its availability on Prime or Netflix right now, but there's a sequel of sorts to Life on Mars - Ashes to Ashes, set in the early '80s. Three eight-episode series. I enjoyed them.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:52 AM on November 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

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