15 Period Dramas You Should Binge-Watch Right Now
With rich characters and impeccable costumes, these period dramas will delight any history nerd.
Period dramas are an expressway to escapism. For fans of the genre, there's nothing more satisfying than shutting out the real world for a little while and getting lost in another era. Fortunately, there are tons of addictive period dramas streaming, and they come from all over the world. We chose 15 of our favorites—the ones with impeccably detailed costumes, compelling characters, and history nerd appeal—to help you plan your next TV marathon. Forget that it's 2020 and press play on one of these shows to take a journey to the past.
The title may sound invented, but the Peaky Blinders were a real gang of 19th century British criminals. Set post-World War I, this drama series has courted a devoted audience with its unforgettable performances (including that of lead Cillian Murphy), brutal realism, and endless cool. At five seasons and counting, Peaky Blinders shows no signs of slowing down. Catch up before the forthcoming Season 6 hits Netflix.
This Showtime series ran from 2007 to 2010 and took serious poetic license by casting Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a young, smoldering Henry VIII. The show chronicles his reign and his relationships to all six of his queens—Joss Stone, Natalie Dormer, and Joely Richardson are among that infamous sorority. Don't look to The Tudors for historical accuracy, however. This steamy soap is basically (and in a very good way) The Days of Our 16th Century Lives.
The dashing Aidan Turner stars as the titular Captain Ross Poldark in this five-season series based on Winston Graham's novels. Ross returns to his Cornwall estate after fighting in the American Revolution and must undo the damage that's been done in his absence. He must also get over the loss of his former love, as she's moved on while he was away. Die-hard Poldark fans adore the show for its semi-ludicrous plot twists and epic romantic saga. If subtlety isn't your thing, this is the period drama for you.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
This stylish Australian mystery series has just about everything: a progressive heroine in private investigator Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis), an abundance of sexual tension between her and her American counterpart Jack (Nathan Page), the music and daring fashions of the 1920s, and—of course—plenty of murder. Based on Kerry Greenwood's books, Miss Fisher's consists of three seasons and the upcoming feature adaptation, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears. Your binge will fly by in a whirl of flapper dresses and witty banter.
The Little Drummer Girl
Directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), this adaptation of John le Carré's novel features future Academy Award nominee Florence Pugh as an English actress recruited by Mossad to go undercover and help foil a terrorist plot. Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård also star in the tightly plotted six-episode miniseries, which is a must-see for anyone who's a sucker for a spy story.
Even if you haven't watched it yet, you're likely familiar with the Netflix show—one of its tentpole original series. It follows the life of Queen Elizabeth II and her family, with the core cast famously changing as the years go by. So far, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have worn the crown in the period drama, with Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies playing Prince Philip. Imelda Staunton has been announced as the actress taking over for the fifth and final season. Unfortunately for those hoping for a dramatization of the royal kerfuffle caused by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stepping away from their duties, The Crown won't be extending into that recent history. But there's plenty of drama still to be rehashed in the decades it will cover.
Streaming on Hulu in the U.S., Harlots is one of the service's hidden gems. Created by Moira Buffini and Alison Newman (and featuring many women working behind the scenes), this series approaches the story of a female brothel owner in the 18th century with a distinctly female perspective and gaze. It combines sumptuous period detail with a sensitive, character-driven exploration of sex work and its ability to grant women financial independence, especially in a time where there were few avenues to find that.
Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Upstairs, Downstairs. The British series set in the early 20th century is similarly concerned with both the wealthy owners of the townhouse to which the title refers and the staff who serve them. The original show ran from 1971 to 1975 and was revived in 2010. The newer seasons pick up with some of the same characters (and a new aristocratic family running things) a handful of years after the action of the first iteration ends, leading up to the beginning of World War II.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
With three seasons streaming and a fourth to come, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has already racked up a shelf of Emmy Awards. Created by Gilmore Girls scribe Amy Sherman-Palladino, the mid-20th century series stars Rachel Brosnahan as a jilted housewife who embarks on a surprisingly successful career as a stand-up comedian. Her talent takes her from city to city and stage to stage, and the period details in every location are enough to make your mouth water—not to mention the costumes. That Maisel is also sharply funny feels like icing on the cake.
Coisa Mais Linda
The title of this Portuguese series translates to Most Beautiful Thing and the show, like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, deals with the liberation of a newly single woman. Not long after Malu (Maria Casadevall) comes to Rio to help her husband open a restaurant, he takes the cash and ditches her. Down but not out, Malu finds a new love in the pulse of the city—the sound of bossa nova—and opens a club. Fortunately, her sudden passion also comes with a dashing new love interest in musician Chico (Leandro Lima). There are only seven episodes so far of this 1950s-set series, but don't fret: Netflix has already renewed Coisa Mais Linda for Season 2.
Diana Gabaldon's series of novels about a time-traveling English nurse falling in love with a Scottish Highlander had a dedicated fan base before anyone laid eyes on the Starz TV adaptation. After that, it became a phenomenon, turning leads Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan into stars and thinking persons' sex symbols. Known for its frank depictions of period-appropriate violence and its lingering, intimate love scenes, Outlander is also a globe-trotting, time-spanning adventure that incorporates real historical figures.
Set in Madrid in the 1920s, this Spanish-language series is centered on four young women who find independence working for a cable company. The friends navigate family drama, romantic entanglements, and workplace politics while keeping the country connected. Cable Girls has proven to be one of Netflix's most addictive international selections. The second half of the fifth and final season dropped in Feb. 2020.
The Spanish Princess
The Spanish Princess is the latest in the Starz historical drama franchise based on Philippa Gregory's books, which began with The White Queen and continued with The White Princess. This series revolves around Charlotte Hope's teenaged Catherine of Aragon, the future Queen of England, who comes to the country under the impression that she's been corresponding with the Prince of Wales. After he suddenly dies, her prospects change and she must get to know the person who was really writing her letters: the proud and uncouth Prince Harry (Ruairi O'Connor), who would later become Henry VIII.
Andrew Davies, creator of the beloved 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries (the one with Colin Firth), takes on Jane Austen's incomplete novel Sanditon in his latest venture. With very little source material to go on, Sanditon adds more than the usual amount of sex and gossip—or, perhaps more accurately, makes the subtext text—to a typical Austen plot of a young, unmarried woman traveling to a seaside resort as a guest of the owners. There, she encounters an heiress from the West Indies (the only main character of color Austen ever wrote), two conniving and suspiciously close half-siblings, and the seemingly indifferent but undeniably handsome brother of her guardian, among other intriguing characters.
Call the Midwife
Initially based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, a real nurse who worked with expectant mothers in the 1950s, the BBC period drama Call the Midwife has been thriving for nine seasons. Audiences see the social and political issues plaguing the poor East End of London through the eyes of the women who deliver its children. Though loss is endured, fans are still eager for more Call the Midwife because of its ultimately life-affirming tone. A 10th and 11th season are already on the way.