With police brutality making headlines in the news, watching FBI agent Jackie Rohr (Kevin Bacon) threaten minorities on the streets of Boston in “City on a Hill” hits a little differently today than it likely would have had it aired in the 1990s, the period of the Showtime drama.
Instead of being painted as a rogue hero who doesn’t play by the rules, Jackie’s behavior is called out as problematic by other characters, allowing the audience to reflect on what they saw as right and wrong in the past in order to hopefully create a better future.
“Period dramas allow us to view our own era without being preached to,” says Tom Fontana, “City on a Hill” executive producer. Writing one, though, requires a delicate hand because “audiences want rich characters and compelling stories, not a polemic.”
That is true regardless of the theme of the series — from following the upper class and their marriage rituals and expectations in the Regency-era set “Bridgerton” on Netflix, to tackling religion, fame and independent crime investigation in 1930s Los Angeles in HBO’s “Perry Mason,” exploring the motivations behind real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson’s (Forest Whitaker) street dealings in the 1960s in Epix’s “Godfather of Harlem” and creating a chosen family within the ballroom scene of 1980s and 1990s New York in FX’s “Pose.”
Like Fontana, Steven Canals, co-creator and showrunner of “Pose,” believes that life is cyclical, and thus, period pieces should portray the failures of the past, as well as the victories.
“I think ‘Pose’ really became all the more urgent and necessary during this current climate when you think about how we continue to disparage trans lives,” he says. “Even more specifically, when you look at where we are right now amid a global pandemic, there are strong parallels to the fight for equality and, more specifically, quality health care [to what was happening] amid the AIDS epidemic.”
In depicting such events and behaviors, creatives also have an opportunity to comment on racial conflict and traditional gender roles. Chris Brancato, executive producer of “Godfather of Harlem,” stresses the importance of leaning into the truth of the time when doing so. Inevitably, the modern audience mindset will scrutinize it, but that is what should happen, in order to challenge what was once the status quo.
“We’re tackling issues that really are sensitive and we’ve got characters on the show who we depict as truly racist,” he points out. “We do have audience members who comment on, frankly, the rather liberal use of all sorts of racial slurs that are tossed toward every different community because part of what the show is trying to suggest is that tribalism is very, very bad for humanity. I remember what one of our writers said: ‘I’ll be only angered if you don’t use these words, because then you’re creating a false narrative.’”
For executive producer Suzanne Mackie, one of the rewards of Netflix’s “The Crown” has been telling stories about historical women who are “unknowable, but, on the other hand, feel very familiar.” These include not only Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), but also Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin).
“What’s so fascinating is when you look back at the ‘40s and ‘50s, or the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s — and we’re moving into the ‘90s — [you] so often see echoes of the past. Things haven’t changed that much — characters are still trapped in the situation and they’re miserable or lonely or they’re questioning the burden of the crown, and they want to be free of that,” she says.
The ability to reflect specific realities to a wider audience was also particularly important to Canals, who hoped “Pose” would help young trans women realize that they have a right to take up space unapologetically.
“Television is a powerful medium that can impact self-esteem. It is a mirror to experience,” he says.