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Finding escape in TV's historic dramas

A great television series transports viewers off the couch and into another world.

A great television series transports viewers off the couch and into another world. And in a time when audiences are consumed with the stress of a lousy economy and over-connectedness, escapism is at a premium.


So it’s really no wonder that cable has become home to a crop of ambitious new period dramas that are not only gorgeous to look at, but offer a fantastical distraction grounded by parallels to modern society.


“When everyday life is a dull struggle to make ends meet, what better than a drama with sumptuous costumes, exotic sets and wealthy, flamboyant characters to cheer us up?” asks Sarah Bower, former critic of historical fiction and author of Sins of the House of Borgia, out March 8. And these new series have those attributes in spades.


In the case of Starz’s Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, the swords and sandals prequel to Blood and Sand — which airs on The Movie Network in Canada —the formula is to capitalize on the successes of the original — including its zealous use of sex scenes and gory gladiator fights.


“We’re trying to tell a very specific story, but because we are not trying to make it for everybody, everybody seems to like it,” says series creator Steven S. DeKnight. “We’re not trying to pander to the mass market. I think it’s great storytelling, at the end of the day, that invites the audience in and can put them on the journeys that all the characters are on.”


When your characters are real-life figures, there is built-in recognition. Add a tagline like “The original crime family,” as Showtime has on promos for The Borgias, and a series becomes intriguingly must-see.


“There are huge parallels [in the series to today] about what people get up to in order to hang onto power,” actor Jeremy Irons says of the machinations of his character, Rodrigo Borgia, who bought the papacy during the Italian Renaissance.


“There were murders in Rome every night, poisonings most weekends. And if you’ve got to run that, which the pope attempts to do, you’ve got to play by the rules that society follows.”

 
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