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How Limited Series Play in the Past but Still Speak to Today’s Sensibilities

Over the past few years television has become an arena that is overflowing with period dramas and historical explorations. However, the difference in recent years is that many viewers are no longer as content to see, and showrunners are no longer as satisfied make, straight period dramas. To set themselves apart, today’s shows that play in the past are expected to offer some commentary on modern society, or to frame the past in a way that it hasn’t been seen on screen before.

Starz’s “The Spanish Princess” is set in Tudor times, characterized by extravagant costumes, dramatic speeches and sweeping proclamations. Yet showrunners Emma Frost and Matthew Graham set out with a different approach to the period by placing the fiery Catherine of Aragon and her diverse court in the center of the action.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to tell stories that women are at the center of, but that have real scale and real stakes,” Frost says.

Catherine’s court was made up of not only Spanish Catholics but also those of Arabic and Jewish descent, a fact that “a cursory Google search” will uncover, Graham says. However, the true diversity of both the English and Spanish courts during the period has “never really been depicted” on screen, according to Frost.

“There’s a misconception based on nothing but hot air that England was white and Europe was white, and every time there is a drama that shows people of color, it’s like the world is ending,” Frost says.

Therefore, Frost and Graham were not putting together an inclusive story simply to reflect the world as it is now and speak to the modern audience’s cries for more representation, but to actually and accurately reflect the world as it was then.

Stephen and Simon Cornwell, the executive producers of AMC’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” based on the novel of the same name by their father, John Le Carré, also wanted to focus on bringing to life the realism of specific time and place. In their case it was 1970s Greece and Germany, as a young actress (played by Florence Pugh) gets recruited into a Palestinian terrorist organization but soon starts working as a double agent.

“The book itself is set in a specific moment in time and we were all — director Park [Chan-wook], our production designer, and ourselves — very drawn to the fact that the tail end of the ’70s leading into the ’80s was a time of great change,” says Simon Cornwell. “It gave us a very interesting mixed aesthetic, a very specific feel to it.”

In order to lean into the revolutionary feel of such change, “we steered well clear of the glam-rock stereotypes of the 1970s and actually burrowed into the sub-cultures,” he says. Visually, this was done through the choice of fashion the young actors wore, as well as the choice of lens — a Zeiss model from the 1930s — to provide an authentically grainy effect and to inform the audience about “time and character.”

For Luke Davies, who adapted Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” for Hulu, though, certain changes did need to be made to make the story, originally published in 1961, a bit more palatable for today’s audience. The story in the novel is set in an intensely male-dominated, often chauvinistic environment of an American military base during World War II. There, almost all the female characters are afterthoughts, and several are not even named (one character in a nearby brothel is referred to only as “Nately’s Whore,” and her sister is just “Nately’s Whore’s Kid Sister,” Davies points out).

“David Michod, my co-writer, and I made it our mission statement that even though we couldn’t have very much more real estate to increase the characters of the women in the series, we would do our best to try and make them less clichéd and more three-dimensional,” Davies says.

It was a challenge, he admits, because the reality of war during that time period was that it was a “very white male world.” However, although they “couldn’t artificially implant the presence of some of the women characters in the series,” he says, “we could make them more human.”

While Frost and Graham, the Cornwells, and Davies and Michod had narrative source material with which to work, Craig Mazin, who created HBO’s “Chernobyl,” was drawing on the real-life nuclear power plant explosion in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s. His instinct and intention with the show, he says, was to be as “historically accurate as possible,” as well as to show the very human story at the center of the tragedy. Depicting such humanity, he believes, is what reaches across geography and time to make a universally relatable story.

“This is the story of the firefighters, their spouses, the people who were sent to the zone to clean it up, the doctors,” he says. “But it’s not just Soviet, this is human. When you’re in the middle of something which could theoretically be horrendous, it is a human instinct of self-preservation to be able to tell yourself a comforting story that maybe it isn’t as bad as everyone’s saying, I think that’s something we all suffer from. We are certainly suffering from it acutely right now in the United States.”

True Detective” creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto says tinkering with the past and “breaking down time” is a means of taking a “deeper, longer” view of his characters that allows him to create more complex dilemmas for them.

In the third season of his HBO show, Pizzolatto took his main character Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) through the pursuit of truth and justice in a missing-child case over several years in the man’s life: 1980, 1990 and 2015.

“Everybody has history; everybody has a backstory,” Pizzolatto says. “It hangs over Wayne in a way he never acknowledges. I think that’s one of his gifts is that he was never the type of person to spend a lot of time looking back until you meet him as an old man and he’s losing his own sense of the past, he’s forced to comb over it.”

Although visiting different periods in time allowed the audience to view the changing socio-economic landscape of a rural, southern town through the lens of hindsight, Pizzolatto admits he was much more interested in how “memory, history and time” are each “colored by human emotions” and added layers to his characters, rather than in commenting on the state of the world. After all, he knows the audience will always end up dissecting deeper based on the personal things they project onto the piece.

“Your experiences are the only totality you’re given within the human condition. We re-contextualize; we ascribe meaning,” he says.

Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.

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