TV’s New Period Pieces

©2011 ORIGIN PICTURES

Period-TV dramas are the new darlings of the small screen.

History isn’t always apparent while you’re living it. But have you noticed we’re in a go-go age for period-TV dramas? As 2012 unfolds, new shows are arriving, set in 1860s Manhattan, 1870s London and 1959 Miami, among other epochs.

Why the bumper crop of bygone days? “I think they give us some sense of solace,” says Tom Fontana, creator of HBO’s Oz. This summer BBC America will unveil Fontana’s Copper, which follows an Irish-American policeman patrolling Manhattan’s grimy, violent Five Points neighborhood circa 1860. “The times we live in right now are incredibly confusing,” says the veteran show runner. “So we like to look back at other periods that were equally confusing and know that humanity survived.”

Of course, there’s a practical force at work too: ratings. Ever since Showtime’s The Tudors and AMC’s Mad Men debuted in 2007 to record-setting viewerships, broadcast and cable execs have been keen to clone them—and they’re willing to put up the big budgets that period shows generally require. Some of the results have crashed, such as ABC’s 1960s airline drama Pan Am, while others have soared. HBO’s Prohibition-era Boardwalk Empire, with a pilot episode reportedly costing nearly $20 million, has a solid global audience, as does the channel’s medieval fantasy, Game of Thrones. PBS has had such success with British import Downton Abbey that Encore hopes this fall that American viewers will embrace the BBC-produced miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White, the tale of a young prostitute in Victorian London. In late May the History Channel weighs in with Hatfields & McCoys, a miniseries about the infamous 19th-century family feud, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton.

Whatever the milieu, enormous effort is being put into getting location details right. For Magic City, a love letter to the Miami Beach luxury-hotel scene during its mob-controlled, Rat Pack heyday at the dawn of the ’60s, Starz agreed to base production in Miami, where series creator Mitch Glazer grew up. “There was no soundstage infrastructure there,” says Glazer. The production team took over a former yacht-building facility to create a 340,000-square-foot interior set for the show’s fictional resort, the Miramar Playa. Glazer claims he doesn’t know the exact cost, but period shows are so hot right now, it didn’t seem like a problem. “Everything’s authentic,” he says. “We have real chandeliers from the era and created exact replicas of Italian gold tiles. There wasn’t a lot of ‘We can’t’ involved.” Ah, the lure of luxury—it’s timeless.