The 26 Best British Costume Dramas (and Where to Watch Them)

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The 26 Best British Costume Dramas (and Where to Watch Them)

Sometimes you want to just wrap yourself up in a gorgeous costume drama, escaping to a past you never knew but perhaps feel on a certain level. Well, a romanticized version anyway, where you don’t have to face daily medical and sanitation issues. But the dresses! The hats!

The airwaves are full of great costume dramas, but fobr our list below we’ve narrowed it down to those of a British variety. Not all of the series take place in England, though—a few examine life in France, Italy, or elsewhere. But they are still wholly British productions, with UK actors and accents throughout. And though these series span many time periods, genres, and interests, there is never a shortage of series about Tudor England (there are 4 on this list so far). We also set a cutoff point of World War I, although we did sneak in a series that goes just past the start of the war. But we couldn’t not include it. You know the one!

A note on streaming: These series are found in a variety of places. In addition to standalone apps for PBS Masterpiece (and PBS Passport), Britbox, and Starz, these services can also be found as premium add-on features to Amazon and Hulu subscriptions (linked below as “via”). All of them have free trials, and we encourage you to try them out. However, if a series is available to stream via an existing subscription to a more major service (Netflix, etc), we’ve linked directly to that below. These series do move around quite a bit, so keep an eye out—they may just pop up elsewhere soon.

The full list is below, but first—Keri Lumm picks her 5 favorites here:

26. Medici: Masters of Florence

Created by: Frank Spotniz, Nicholas Meyer
Stars: Richard Madden, Annabel Scholey, Stuart Martin, Alessandro Sperduti, Dustin Hoffman
Original Network: Netflix

Watch on Netflix

Historical intrigue can make for excellent TV, and though Netflix’s Medici: Masters of Florence goes too far to manufacture drama when the truth is more entertaining, it nonetheless boasts an exceptionally captivating historical premise. Season 1 commences with the untimely death of the family’s founding patriarch, Giovanni de’Medici, and focuses on his son Cosimo’s push to assert authority over the Florentine Republic. Through a series of flashbacks, we get a clearer sense of the rocky relationship that Cosimo (Richard Madden) has with his wife, Contessina (Annabel Scholey), and how he’s long stood in the shadow of his overbearing parents. A great deal of attention is paid to the threat of rival families like the Albizzi. We are shown a Cosimo who is very much going it alone. He’s unable to trust even his brother, Lorenzo (Stuart Martin), or to put his faith in the abilities of his soft-spoken son, Piero (Alessandro Sperduti). This Cosimo is determined to gain power over the city, but we often find him at the helm of a ship taking on water. —Christine Contrada


25. Sanditon

Created by: Andrew Davies
Stars: Rose Williams, Theo James, Anne Reid, Kris Marshall, Jack Fox
Original Network: ITV (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on Amazon Prime via PBS Masterpiece

Jane Austen wrote novels with romantic happily-ever-afters that she herself never even experienced. But Sanditon, a book with no ending, was given life as a PBS miniseries. Starring heartthrob Theo James as Sidney Parker and the beautiful Rose Williams as Charlotte Heyward, fans of Austen get to see Andrew Davies’ perception of how things end. While the cast and setting is thoroughly lovely, there is definite creative license taken to what Austen fans will expect. After all, it is hard to imagine the virginal Austen writing explicit sex scenes that pepper this new work. The miniseries is perfect for those who love the flavor of Jane Austin but want an unexpected storyline with a touch of the erotic. —Keri Lumm


24. The Pillars of the Earth

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Created by: John Pielmeier
Stars: Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Matthew Macfadyen, Hayley Atwell, Eddie Redmayne
Original Network: Starz

Watch on Starz

Ken Follet’s sprawling historical novel, The Pillars of the Earth , gave a wonderful glimpse at life across social strata in 12th-century England. Spanning the multi-decade construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, the book is as much a poem to architecture as it is a tale of intrigue. Minor innovations in stone work are treated as miracles of God. And while some of that passion is lost in the translation to an eight-part miniseries, the intrigue is enough to entertain. At its heart, it’s a story about ambition, both selfish and noble. Tom Builder’s (Rufus Sewell) driving ambition is to build a cathedral, a desire shared by the artistic young Jack Jackson (Eddie Redmayne) and the pious Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen). Their goal is thwarted by the selfish aspirations of everyone with power, whether from the church or the state. Money and titles are central to every decision made by those who already have some level of riches or power. The few honest men and women (including Hayley Atwell’s Aliena) must use their own cunning and faithfulness to survive the onslaught of deception that rarely slows during the nearly eight hours of film. —Josh Jackson


23. Doctor Thorne

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Created by: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Tom Hollander, Stefanie Martini, Harry Richardson, Rebecca Front, Richard McCabe, Ian McShane, Alison Brie
Original Network: ITV (UK) / Amazon (US)

Watch on Amazon Prime

The one Julian Fellowes period drama you probably haven’t seen, Doctor Thorne is a pretty basic but mostly charming adaptation of the 1858 novel of the same name by Anthony Trollope. The story, which follows the titular Doctor Thomas Thorne and his niece Mary, has pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from a Fellows series: Class issues, money troubles, hidden family secrets, and scandal playing out against a lavish, gorgeous background. (It’s honestly hard to overstate how pretty this show is to look at.)  

The plot is deeply familiar to anyone who’s ever watched anything like this before (penniless orphan in love with a childhood best friend who’s been told he must marry for money), but it the excellent cast, which includes Tom Hollander, Stefani Martini, and Poldark cinnamon roll Harry Richardson, infuse it with enough heart to make it work. —Lacy Baugher


22. The Borgias

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Created by: Neil Jordan
Stars: Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Joanne Whalley, Lotte Verbeek, David Oakes
Original Network: Showtime

Watch on Netflix

A deliriously over-the-top family saga from the minds behind The Tudors, The Borgias is wildly entertaining, generally inaccurate, and utterly impossible to stop watching. The series, which ran for three seasons on Showtime, follows the story of Rodrigo Borgia, the scion of the infamous Borgia family, who were known for their lavish tastes, scandalous sexual escapades and love of using bribery, extortion and torture to hold on to power. Rodrigo, of course, is better remembered by history as the Renaissance-era Pope Alexander VI, a corrupt manipulator with multiple bastard children who you’ve probably heard of (the legend of his son Cesare plays a key role in the Assassin’s Creed videogames)—most notably his daughter Lucretzia. 

Jeremy Irons is clearly having a blast playing Rodrigo, gleefully chewing the scenery and fully committing to his character’s most debaucherous moments. But it’s Holliday Grainger who truly deserves praise, playing a Lucretzia who evolves from innocent ingenue to incestuous powerhouse over the course of the show. (Forever salty that the Cesare and Lucretzia love story that blossoms in the series third season wasn’t talked about more at the time—it’s both shocking and surprisingly well done!) —Lacy Baugher


21. Vanity Fair

Created by: Gwyneth Hughes
Stars: Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn
Original Network: ITV (UK) / Amazon (US)

Watch on Amazon Prime

Vanity Fair is a woefully under-adapted period piece, likely because its central character is pretty much the antithesis of everything we’ve come to expect from heroines in stories like this. But this whipsmart adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel has never felt more relevant, with its grifter leading lady and constant acknowledgement that humanity is generally no better than it has to be.

In this 2018 adaptation, Olivia Cooke makes a sly, pitch-perfect Becky Sharpe (Reese Witherspoon always had too much of an America’s Sweetheart vibe to be believable this role, IMO), who revels in her ambition. There’s something intensely entertaining about watching her scam her way into the upper echelons of society. Plus, everyone around her is even worse, even if they are played by the sort of British acting talent that includes everyone from Martin Clunes and Frances de la Tour to Tom Bateman. —Lacy Baugher


20. Gentleman Jack

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Creator: Sally Wainwright
Stars: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle
Original Network: HBO

Watch on HBO

Gentleman Jack is drawn from the extensive (some four million pages) journals of Anne Lister, a landed class Yorkshire woman widely considered to be the first “modern lesbian” known to history. Those diaries exhaustively detail her rather audacious life as a world traveler, coal magnate, landlord, mountaineer, and “Parisian,” which seems to be a common shorthand in 19th-century Halifax for “avid seducer of other women.” The series focuses on a timeframe in the 1830s dominated by Lister (Suranne Jones) returning to her family home in Yorkshire and setting her sights on nervous heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) as a companion. Watch it for an interesting depiction of 19th-century Yorkshire society with sleek, colorful production and a lot of beautiful high-contrast scenery; rolling green fields and hedgerows starting to sprout factory smokestacks, or Lister’s frock coat and men’s hat and frank stare amid all those blonde ringlets and pastel silk gowns and sunlit yellow drawing room walls. Watch it for Jones’ forceful, vivacious, smart-as-hell portrayal of a defiant iconoclast who chose to value her own integrity over whatever it was society needed her to value. Though all the performances are relatively strong, Jones instantly becomes the center of gravity in every frame she’s in. Perhaps most of all, though, watch it for what it suggests about why it nearly always makes sense to be yourself. Even if it sometimes hurts, because of course it will, whoever you are. —Amy Glynn


19. The Tudors

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Created by: Michael Hirst
Stars: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sam Neill, Callum Blue, Henry Cavill, Henry Czerny, Natalie Dormer, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Peter O’Toole, Max von Sydow, Joss Stone
Original Network: Showtime

Watch on Amazon Prime with Showtime Watch on Hulu with Showtime

“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” This cozy little rhyme helps us all remember the poor women who married King Henry the VIII, every one (practically) meeting with an unpleasant end. He divorced his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for a younger woman, and Catherine spent her remaining days destitute and imprisoned in a castle. In this captivatingly soapy and not exactly historically-accurate series (which launched no shortage of acting careers) Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell on Game of Thrones) plays Anne Boleyn, Henry’s infamous second wife. Proving that karma is indeed a bitch, she was framed by her nemeses to make it seem like she had cheated on the king, and was beheaded. While Anne died young, her legacy did continue with her daughter, Elizabeth, and The Tudors continued to tell her story, as well as those inhabiting the various thrones around her during one of England’s most fraught periods of royal turmoil. —Madina Papadopoulos and Allison Keene


18. Black Sails

Created by: Jonathan E. Steinberg, Robert Levine
Stars: Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Tom Hopper, Zach McGowan
Original Network: Starz

Watch on Amazon Prime

The most popular depictions of pirates in television and movies have mostly been created for the family. They are sweet, comic depictions of days gone by with hunts for buried treasure. Starz does not take that path with their pirate based show, Black Sails. The show is written as a prequel to Treasure Island and follows Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) as he hunts treasure alongside John Silver (Luke Arnold). While Treasure Island might be required reading for kids at school, this show is anything but family friendly. Black Sails is gritty, showing how hard real life was in the West Indies, and how brutal pirates were not only to their enemies but to each other. You can feel how difficult it was, and takes the shine off of the buried treasure. The show is also historically accurate, showing a diverse cross section of people—the women are powerful leaders, the love stories are strong, and you feel like you have an inside look at what pirate life was really like. Starz has shown that when it comes to historical fiction they are masters at their craft. When you watch Black Sails, you don’t have to wonder why their lifespans were so short; life was rough, but the rewards were a thing of legend. —Keri Lumm


17. Versailles

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Created by: Simon Mirren, David Wolstencroft
Stars: George Blagden, Alexander Vlahos, Tygh Runyan, Evan Williams, Noémie Schmidt, Anna Brewster
Original Network: BBC Two / Canal+ / Ovation

Watch on Netflix

The wonderfully opulent and soapy drama Versailles focuses on the reign of France’s King Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King. The expansion of France, and the increased taxation that lead towards revolution, plays out against the building of the magnificent Versailles, as the series leans into the courtly drama and scandals that defined the era. Blagden is fantastic as a monarch who truly believes he was chosen by God (which leaves him both bold and conflicted), and is matched in confidence by Vlahos as Louis’ brother Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, who often wore women’s clothing and had a long-running affair with the Chevalier of Lorraine. There are mistresses and sexual romps to spare in the series, but also mysteries, double-crossings, and witchcraft. This is not a stuffy historical drama, but a modern-feeling escapade with a minimal glance towards accuracy. We wouldn’t want it any other way. —Allison Keene


16. Les Misérables

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Created by: Andrew Davies
Stars: Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Lily Collins, Adeel Akhtar, Johnny Flynn, Henry Lloyd-Hughes
Original Network: PBS

Watch on Amazon Prime via PBS Masterpiece

Written by Victor Hugo and published in 1862, Les Misérables is known as one of the great novels of the 19th century. And as the title implies, it’s all about misery, of a sort that’s difficult for most of us to imagine. This 2018 retelling of the novel—which many people familiar with the story through the stage musical and its screen adaptations may not have actually read—is brought to you by Masterpiece, and it lives up to the name. There have been many prior versions of the tale, and most of them condense it to two or three hours. The beauty of turning Les Misérables into a (non-musical) miniseries is that we get a long view of the characters, finding new sides to well-known figures—Lily Collins’ Fantine, Dominic West’s Jean Valjean, David Oyelowo’s Javert—and finding depth in those, like Olivia Colman’s Madame Thénardier, who often come across as one-note. This Les Misérables may be the best one yet. —Keri Lumm


15. The English Game

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Created by: Julian Fellowes, Tony Charles, Oliver Cotton
Stars: Edward Holcroft, Kevin Guthrie, Charlotte Hope, Niamh Walsh, Craig Parkinson, James Harkness
Original Network: Netflix

Watch on Netflix

The English Game arrives at a good time for two reasons. One, the 21st century has really been lacking in great sports movies that so dominated the 1980s and ‘90s. Two, sports are cancelled right now because of the spread of coronavirus. So why not settle in and watch some pale but fit English lads run around the pitch in what is essentially Chariots of Fire: The Series?

Taking place in the 1870s, the six-part miniseries (from Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) introduces us to the true story of two players from opposing sides who will change the game in critical ways. The first, brashly handsome Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), has dominated the field for years playing for the Old Etonians—whose team has not only won four FA (Football Association) cups at this point, but who also double as FA board members and chairman. (You see the problems already). The second, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), is a wee Scottish powerhouse who has been brought to play for Darwen FC, a northern mill-town club, before being wooed by Blackburn.

The larger question that The English Game tackles (pun partially intended) is one of inclusion. Who is this game for? It was crafted by wealthy Englishmen, but are they the future of it? We know they answer is “no,” but it’s something in the 1870s that was only just beginning to become clear. Fergus and Love—two of the best players in the game—are Scottish and working class. This is already revolutionary. But their play style is also evolving from the one the Old Etonians employ. Fergus encourages his teammates to move out farther and pass more, something we’ve seen Spanish players in just the last decade take to an exceptional art form.

The short run and miniseries format (one that is a true miniseries, with a very clear end) make The English Game an easy investment, and one that everyone can enjoy while under quarantine orders or beyond. But it’s also a story whose questions are still very relevant today (regarding hooliganism, playing for money versus pride, the role of amateur clubs). Its answers are, too. Who is the game for? That is clear enough: Anyone who loves it. When speaking of the growing numbers of supporters in the stands or those anxiously sitting at pubs waiting for scores, characters note again and again that it “gives them hope and pride and so much more.” And that’s what makes it not just The English Game, but the beautiful one.—Allison Keene


14. Howards End

Created by: Kenneth Lonergan
Stars: Hayley Atwell, Matthew Macfadyen, Philippa Coulthard, Alex Lawther, Tracey Ullman, Julia Ormond
Original Network: Starz / PBS

Watch on Amazon Prime

The gorgeous four-part miniseries adaptation of E.M. Forester’s masterful Howards End stars Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel, the older sister (and de facto matriarch) of a progressive and independent family living in early 20th century London. Margaret and her siblings are on the forefront of changing social mores, sometimes controversially so, and it defines her relationship with an older, wealthy widower, Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), whose conservative values clash with hers. The story feels timely in many ways, although the genuine curiosity and politeness with which these issues are broached can seem lamentably foreign. The series, stunningly directed by Hettie MacDonald and wonderfully adapted by Kenneth Lonergan, is in many ways an atypical and refreshing period piece. Anchored by outstanding performances, the series shines in its quiet moments of personal fortitude and in confronting one’s own biases in endlessly intriguing ways. It is truly a must-watch. —Allison Keene


13. Harlots

Created by: Alison Newman Moira Buffini
Stars: Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Jessica Brown Findlay, Dorothy Atkinson, Pippa Bennett-Warner
Original Network: ITV, Hulu

Watch on Hulu

Class. Patriarchy. Mobility. Agency. Sex and sexuality. Repression and Puritanism. Madonna-whore complexes. Hypocrisy. Masks and veneers. Family. Ghosts from the past. The never-ending battle to stay solvent, stay relevant and stay independent in a ruthless, snakes-and-ladders universe. Harlots has it all. First aired in Britain on ITV Encore, Harlots focuses on a bitter rivalry between two brothel-keepers in Georgian-era London, where, according to the opening scene, one woman in five was a sex worker. Madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is scrappy and intensely focused on upward mobility, with an “it’s complicated” family of her own as well as her covey of whores; Across town in Golden Square is Margaret’s nemesis, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a human glacier whose establishment is less a bawdy-house than a very high-end flesh-boutique. Soap opera-worthy machination and intrigue are hardly the whole story here, though. Harlots is a fascinating contemplation of a woman’s world in which there both is and isn’t freedom from the constraints of a society rife with hypocrisy and utterly tyrannized by money. —Amy Glynn


12. Lark Rise to Candleford

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Created by: Bill Gallagher
Stars: Julia Sawalha, Olivia Hallinan, Claudie Blakley, Brendan Coyle, Linda Bassett, Karl Johnson
Original Network: BBC One (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on Hulu

Based on the book trilogy by Flora Thompson, this turn-of-the-twentieth-century gentle delight of a series focuses on a young woman, Laura, moving from her tiny English hamlet to the slightly larger and wealthier town of Candleford. There she takes a job at the local post office under the tutelage of her mother’s cousin, Dorcas, who is wonderfully charming and progressive as Post Mistress. The series explores the community experiences of these two women during an idyllic, agrarian-based moment in Britain’s history. With romance, intrigue, plenty of family drama, and clever comedy (not to mention a cast you will instantly fall in love with), Lark Rise is truly a hidden gem that the whole family can enjoy. —Allison Keene


11. Belgravia

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Created by: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Philip Glenister, Tamsin Greig, Emily Reid, Jeremy Neumark Jones, Alice Eve, Harriet Walter
Original Network: Epix

Watch on Amazon Prime via Epix

For those who have missed the swirling, upperclass dramas of Downton Abbey, its creator Julian Fellowes has penned another (much shorter) story worth the obsession: Belgravia, whose sleek six episodes provide the TV equivalent of a beach read romp, one that is engaging and ultimately very satisfying. The series focuses on a set of wealthy denizens and the up-and-coming merchant class of this newly planned area of London, beginning on a fateful (true) night of an infamous ball that takes place on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. The choices made there between two young lovers reverberate throughout the generations, both old and young, creating a web of lies and pain and coverups that continue to define relationships decades later. That’s a purposefully vague description, because the revelations of these connections and twists are what make Belgravia such fun.

The secrets that our socialite lynchpin Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) holds—and chooses to reveal—are what kickstart the whole affair, including bad debts, secret babies, eloping lovers, useless heirs, and clandestine meetings. All of it layers upon itself to lead us to a thrilling final two episodes, where viewers (this one included) will be desperate for good information to spread as rapidly as the bad has, and for misunderstands to be cleared up and away during a chaotic climax. Everything comes down to money, of course—those who have it, those who want it, those who will do anything for more of it.

Belgravia would feel fully at home on PBS Masterpiece, and perhaps one day will end up there. For now, fans will have to look a little further on the cable dial (or consider adding this premium service, which is currently running a 30-day free trial) to unlock its secrets. —Allison Keene


10. Cranford

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Created by: Sue Birtwistle, Susie Conklin
Stars: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Simon Woods, Michael Gambon, Lisa Dillon, Claudie Blakley
Original Network: BBC One (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on Amazon Prime via Britbox

Based on three charming novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford is a gentle, humorous, and warm-hearted chronicle of life in rural England in the 1840s. With a primary focus on the town’s single and widowed middle class women, the miniseries is filled not only with cozy settings and unforgettable characters (played by some of England’s best actors), but also provides a variety of romantic subplots and the quiet intrigues that bring a dash of spice to daily life. A lovely, simmering humor is felt throughout, which helps soften some of its occasional sorrow. Overall, Cranford is a timeless, comforting, joyful watch for the whole family. —Allison Keene


9. Wolf Hall


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Created by: Peter Straughan
Stars: Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis, Claire Foy, Bernard Hill, Anton Lesser, Mark Gatiss
Original Network: BBC Two (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on Amazon Prime via PBS Masterpiece

Based on the best-selling historical novel series by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall stars Mark Rylance, everyone’s favorite award-winning, poetry-spouting thespian, as Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer and statesman who ended up rising through the ranks (via a combination of sheer intelligence and Machiavellian manipulation) to become the right-hand man of King Henry VIII. Fans of sumptuous costume dramas will find plenty to love in the series’ lavish production design, while those seeking the images of esteemed European actors bouncing off each other will also have a lot to savor. Wolf Hall’s primary strength, however, lies in depicting the fascinating machinations of 16th century politics, the importance of religious freedom and reform, and how a few choice whispers can so drastically influence the progression of history. —Mark Rozeman and Allison Keene


8. The White Queen / The White Princess / The Spanish Princess

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Created by: Emma Frost
Stars: Rebecca Ferguson, Jodie Comer, Essie Davis, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Hope
Original Network: BBC One / Starz

Watch on Amazon Prime via Starz

United by theme, the three miniseries The White Queen, The White Princess, and The Spanish Princess are also based off of the work of Phillipa Gregory, but augmented by their commitment to showing the agency of these royal women. Set during the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, all three feature tour de force performances from their outstanding casts, and examine a more rarely seen perspective during this famous historical period. Though each installment features an entirely new cast and a new generation of players, they are linked in more ways than one, and it’s worth watching in chronological order to get the full story of these bloody times. With a keen eye to historical detail and research with accurately depicts people of color living and working in Tudor England (seen mostly in The Spanish Princess), these Starz series continue to prove why the network is beginning to rival PBS in terms of excellent historical drama. —Allison Keene


7. Poldark

Created by: Debbie Horsfield
Stars: Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ruby Bentall. Beatie Edney, Jack Farthing, Heida Reed, Kyle Soller, Richard Harrington, Phil Davis, Warren Clarke
Original Network: BBC One / PBS

Watch on Amazon Prime

Lovers of sweeping, romantic sagas will delight at this Masterpiece presentation, which takes viewers back to the late 1700s following the American Revolutionary War. Ross Poldark, an officer in the British army, returns home to his family estates in Cornwall to discover that not only was he presumed dead, but his father has died, the woman he loves is marrying his cousin, and he has a mountain of debts and no obvious way to raise the funds. Based on the series of 12 novels by Winston Graham, Poldark stars Aidan Turner in the title role. As the heroic Poldark, he vows to sets things to right even as the odds seem insurmountable. And he doesn’t want to succeed out of some sense of upper-class pride, but for the people of Cornwall who have fallen on hard times.—Paulette Cohn


6. Bridgerton

Created by: Chris Van Dusen
Stars: Phoebe Dynevor, Regé-Jean Page, Adjoa Andoh, Jonathan Bailey, Nicola Coughlan, Polly Walker, Julie Andrews
Original Networks: Netflix

All hail Bridgerton, Netflix’s lush, swoony adaption of a set of romance novels that is the perfect way to close out 2020 (that is to say, thirsty). The series focuses on a London family with eight children, all of whom were blessed with good genes and five (or six?) of whom are currently of marriageable age. And thus, in this Regency-era setting, the game is afoot with the quippy, mysterious gossip Lady Whistledown as our guide. There are balls and rakes and other things that had a completely different meaning in the 1800s, but one thing that has not changed is how electrifying the buttoning of a glove or the slight touch of hands can be in the right context. The show also gets pretty explicit at times, but does so with a nearly revolutionary female gaze for a period drama. As such, it is as pearl-clutching as one can get (and not a show to watch with one’s family).

Although all of the Bridgerton siblings appear during the show’s eight episodes, the first season focuses primarily on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters society and attempts to secure a marriage proposal. Initially the talk of the town, her standing falls with the arrival of a beautiful newcomer, so to escape a loveless marriage with an unsavory man chosen for her by her eldest brother, Daphne strikes a deal with the extremely handsome and newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a committed bachelor with twice the bodice-ripping hero energy any one man should possess. In a classic fake-dating scenario, the Duke pretends to court Daphne in order to raise her value in the marriage market, while their agreement keeps women from throwing themselves at him. It’s a win-win situation … until the two develop real feelings for one another, of course. Bridgerton isn’t perfect, but it’s a candy-colored, gloriously anachronistic romp that brings a new vivacity to bonnet dramas (leaving most of the bonnets aside, for one), and is great fun. —Allison Keene and Kaitlin Thomas


5. Outlander

Created by: Ronald D. Moore
Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan
Original Network: Starz

Watch on Netflix

Based on Diana Gabaldon’s immensely popular book series, Outlander follows the story of Claire Randall, a nurse in 1940s England who, while on a holiday to Scotland, gets transported back through mystical stones to the 1740s. There, as she fights for survival and a way home, she meets a tall, dark and handsome Highlander name James Fraser, and the rest is history. Except that Outlander actually does a really wonderful job of tracking the couple’s place throughout history, providing tense, riveting and yes romantic storytelling along the way. The series’ truly wonderful cast is augmented to the stratosphere by its leads, whose chemistry will make you believe in love at first sight. Full of battles, political intrigue and gorgeous on every level, the show is a wonderfully cozy (and sexy) adventure. From its hauntingly beautiful theme song by Bear McCreary onwards, Outlander will transport you to its dangerous, surprising world as quickly as those magical stones. —Allison Keene


4. The Great

Created by: Tony McNamara
Stars: Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Charity Wakefield, Gwilym Lee, Adam Godley
Original Network: Hulu

Watch on Hulu

For those who adored The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara is back with “an occasionally true story” for Hulu focused on the rise of Catherine the future great, when she was just “a 20-year-old who’s been in Russia six months, and who—with the aid of a drunken general, an angry maid, and a nervous bureaucrat#8212;is going up against the violent regime that is Peter’s empire,” (as one character succinctly states). The 10-episode series has a crisp, fast-moving script and sumptuous costuming that looks like a traditional historical drama but feels refreshingly modern in its approach. Bathed in a Marie Antoinette meets Death of Stalin aesthetic (and never going Full Dickinson), the series’ acid, winning humor understands the familiar absurdity of an age filled with the constant juxtaposition of wealth and brutality. Emotionally affecting as a complicated dance of horror and hope, Catherine’s outright victories may be few and far between, but the journey is thrilling.

The Great begins in the mid-18th century, with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival at the Russian court as a naive German bride for Peter (Nicholas Hoult) the not-so-great and in fact very-much-awful. A script this cleverly bombastic requires very specific handling to balance its humor and drama, and both Hoult and Fanning are luminous as the ill-matched new couple. But though Catherine has a distaste (quite rightfully) for Peter, she does have a heart for her new country. “I want a strong, vibrant Russia alive with ideas, humane and progressive, where people live with dignity and purpose,” she says dreamily. “Russia?” the Emperor’s advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) says in a questioning tone. “It needs to be believable.” Catherine’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox)—a former noble lady stripped of her position—adds, “Just tell them … no one will rape and kill you and your children, and you’ll have some bread. That would be sufficient.”

The way the series charts Catherine’s quiet but brave attempts to take power by growing a voice at court and discovering new things about herself is a really beautiful journey, punctuated by completely absurd events. It’s strange and wonderful and a fantastically funny ride. But it will also leave you pondering the nature of sacrifice and real change, and the courage it takes to overthrow a despot. Huzzah. —Allison Keene


3. Pride and Prejudice

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Created by: Simon Langton
Stars: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, Susannah Harker,Julia Sawalha
Original Networks: BBC (UK) / A&E (US)

Watch on Hulu

Horse riders make their way through a 16mm-colored countryside, Colin Firth makes his way into a lake, and Austen makes her way onto TV in what remains the definitive adaptation of Austen’s work for the screen (the breathtaking opening three minutes of Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation aside). The music bounces from scene to scene with curlicue youthfulness. The acting prods the lines around it with sly good cheer. Through it all, the spirit of the adaptation by Andrew Davies can be found in his describing it so: “Let’s have Elizabeth on a hillside seeing these two tasty blokes galloping along, and something about them makes her skip down the hill.” And, for the implicit back and forth that inspires (let alone what follows), we follow, too. —Evan Fleischer


2. Victoria

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Created by: Daisy Goodwin
Stars: Jenna Coleman, Tom Hughes, Nell Hudson, David Oakes, Rufus Sewell
Original Network: ITV (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on Amazon Prime

Examining the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, Victoria has never gotten the same attention as its splashy cousin, The Crown. And yet, the series share many similarities. Both feature young women being pushed very suddenly into a royal role they had not been expecting, facing difficulties living under constant public scrutiny, and fighting to command respect from men who do no think them up to the task. Among the politics there are also two beautiful love stories at the center of Victoria; a chaste one between the young queen and her first Prime Minister, “Lord M” (as she calls him), and the other between Victoria and her future husband Albert. Both are unique in their own ways, especially in how the show allows Victoria and Albert to settle into both domestic bliss and the natural scuffles all couples face (augmented, of course, by their positions). The show truly blossoms in its second season, and continues from there to be an emotional and surprisingly cozy portrayal of the royal household, the people it employs, and a nation Victoria and Albert seek to modernize. Gorgeously costumed and compellingly crafted, Victoria is a wonderful series to fully immerse yourself in—one that will (for many Americans, at least) have you constantly on Wikipedia to learn more about the historical events it portrays. —Allison Keene


1. Downton Abbey

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Created by: Julian Fellowes
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Laura Carmichael, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt
Original Network: ITV (UK) / PBS (US)

Watch on Peacock Watch on Amazon Prime

The lush, swirling period piece Downton Abbey is never short on drama or general strife. The ensemble series is extraordinarily well-acted (as evidenced by Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle all receiving Emmy nominations), and there’s perhaps no easier way to describe some of the plot twists than fucking nuts, a term we strongly feel the saucy Dowager Countess would approve of. Amnesia? Yup. Temporary paralysis? Got it. Murder conviction? Oh, big-time. In less capable hands, these stories would’ve likely flown off the rails and veered into the completely ridiculous, but the talented cast of Downton Abbey manage to always handle it with aplomb. As the seasons progressed, many more tragedies would befall the Crawley family, making for some of most compelling television in recent memory, and all capped off with one of TV’s most satisfying finales (and then, another hugely satisfying movie). —Bonnie Stiernberg



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