12 more period dramas you should be watching from around the world
If you've loved period dramas for any length of time, you've probably seen them all.
Not that there's a shortage of shows dramatizing any and everything from the 1600s to the '60s. But you have your stalwart producers in the U.K. and your faithful Masterpiece on PBS distributing those wares in the United States. You've seen your Poldarks and your Indian Summers and your Downtons. Maybe you've seen all 12 of my other period shows you should be watching, even the ones you have to get on DVD from a library near you.
You need something a little more. Lo and behold, streaming services provide in the form of international content unlikely to end up before your eyes otherwise.
Now, I can already hear several people saying, "Ugh, I don't want to read subtitles," and hastily clicking away. Hear me out. Once in college, I resisted watching a Bollywood movie with a roommate because I didn't want to read subtitles. Eventually, she wore me down, I watched, I fell in love, I am now the leader of a Bollywood movie fan club where I met my husband and fell in love again. Okay, that probably won't happen to you, but JUST READ THE SUBTITLES AND WATCH MORE THINGS. It's worth it, I promise. You'll expand your knowledge of the world, which is never a bad thing, and learn about a few fascinating figures you never knew existed and quite possibly also remember classroom Spanish you thought you forgot.
And if all else fails, a few of these shows are Australian or Canadian, so you won't need subtitles there.
This Spanish show is one of the most addicting things I have ever watched, which probably explains why I've written about it several times. When I first wrote about it, I said, "Think Downton Abbey on steroids in Spain. But with less #richpeopleproblems, more murder." The show is set in a lavish hotel on the Spanish coast in the early 1900s. It follows the upstairs — the aristocratic Alarcón family with at least three killers among them — and the downstairs — the hotel staff that includes a serial killer, a thief, an aspiring social climber ... and a bastard Alarcón child — and how they mix. In particular, it focuses on star-crossed lovers Julio (Yon Gonzalez, Cable Girls), who is a waiter, and Alicia (Amaia Salamanca, Velvet), an Alarcón, who marries the evil hotel manager Diego). There's also baby-snatching, affairs galore and, yeah, lots of murders. The OMG moments just don't quit. You can watch all three seasons of Gran Hotel on Netflix, where you can also find El hotel de los secretos ("The Hotel of Secrets"), a Mexican adaptation that I have not yet watched.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
This Australian show is also one of those shows I just can't stop talking about. Fashion. Jazz. Sex. Feminism. Murder. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries has it all in spades, with sequins. The Honorable Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis, The Babadook and Game of Thrones) is the very definition of fabulous, a well-dressed lady of means in 1920s Melbourne who just so happens to solve some grisly murders in her spare time. Her backing cast of common folk is just as fabulous: the steadfast and dapper detective inspector with whom she works and flirts, a very religious and classic goody-two-shoes lady's maid, a butler dishing out weapons advice amidst baking, cab-driving Communist henchmen. You can watch all three seasons on Netflix or Acorn; it also airs seasonally on PBS. Since the third season finished airing in 2014, the show's status has been left open ended, with several promises that movies will be made. Here's hoping.
It's hard to describe the emotional rollercoaster this Spanish drama will take you on over the course of its four seasons. Set in a prominent Madrid fashion store called Velvet, it follows the store's change of ownerships and bid to stay relevant in the '50s and '60s from more daring designs to jewelry lines to pret a porter. But really it follows the lives of its owners and employees, none more so than the since-childhood on-again-off-again upstairs-downstairs romance of heir Alberto Márquez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Sense8) and seamstress Ana Rivera (Paula Echevarría). Ana and Alberto go through so many ups and downs together and separately, from the pilot episode's car crash that nearly kills them both to long, complicated relationships with other people and more things I just can't spoil, including the killer Season 3 cliffhanger. But that is only one of the dozens of storylines that make the show great. Ana is also determined to make it as a designer, even if she has to do it in secret. Alberto has to keep the company afloat in all manner of troubled times. Alberto's wealthy half-sister Patricia learns the hard way about privilege and a different kind of autonomy while working as a sales-girl. Seamstress Rita is in love with the hapless boyfriend of her suaver sister, Clara (Marta Hazas, Gran Hotel), a sales-girl turned secretary who might be having affairs elsewhere. And because this is a telenovela, there are also a handful of murders, a few not-really-dead "dead" people and affairs and back-stabbing schemes galore. Ah, the glorious, glorious drama. All four seasons are now streaming on Netflix.
Doctor Blake Mysteries
Like my favorite Australian show, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, this one stars an unlikely crime solver who helps the police whenever they let him. In the late '50s, Dr. Lucien Blake (Craig McLachlan, who has a very interesting resume you really should just read on Wikipedia) returns to Ballarat, Australia, after 30 years to take over the medical practice of his late father and also takes up being the police surgeon (essentially a medical examiner). Blake has been abroad since going to medical school in Europe and then serving in the British Army during World War II. As the show slowly unravels, it hints at Blake's complicated past during the war (as a POW, possibly as a spy) and the family he lost (that takes several turns). He begins to build (or rebuild) a new one in his Ballarat household with his widowed housekeeper, Jean (Nadine Garner), whom he may be in love with despite denying all the rumors, and boarders that include a nurse and policemen. He constantly butts heads with the powers that be in the police force for his unorthodox methods and attempts to solve crimes with or without them. Seasons 1-3 are currently available on Netflix and on DVD from local library systems; episodes also air on some PBS stations. A fifth and final season is set to air later this year in Australia.
Cable Girls (Las chicas del cable)
This new Spanish offering from Netflix has only released half of its first season so far, but it seems to be off to a promising start, probably in part because it's from directors and producers of Velvet and Gran Hotel. Set in 1920s Madrid, it follows a handful of women who work as operators for a telephone company. The show strikes a proud feminist tone from the outset as women talk about the ways in which they are treated more poorly than possessions, their need for the vote and the autonomy they enjoy while working; the show also touches on struggles of various characters as an abused wife, as a daughter of controlling society parents, as a shy girl who has moved from the village and as a closeted lesbian. But its central character is the one who really brings the telenovela drama up another notch: Alba Romero (Blanca Suárez) is a thief/prostitute who dreams of running away to Argentina until her friend is shot by a crazed lover and Alba is blamed for both deaths. A policeman then blackmails Alba into working for the phone company — where she assumes the identity of Lidia Aguilar — until she can rob their safe. Of course instead she comes to love the other women who work there … and she encounters Francisco (Yon Gonzalez, Gran Hotel), the love of her youth with whom she came to Madrid years earlier. They were separated then in dramatic fashion, and the reunion is all sorts of complicated. The first eight episodes of the first season are now streaming on Netflix with the other eight expected later this year. The show has already been renewed for a second season.
Speaking of women's contributions at an important point in history, this Canadian show showcases women who work at a munitions factory during WWII. In echoes of what you just read about Cable Girls, it includes women from several different backgrounds, including central character Gladys (Jodi Balfour), who fights her wealthy family's disapproval to do her part; a middle-aged floor matron (Meg Tilly, Golden Globe winner for 1985's Agnes of God) whose husband is wounded from the first war and who begins an affair with another man; a woman who suffers a disfiguring accident at the factory; a closeted lesbian; and a newcomer trying to hide her past. Supporting male characters include an Italian who is often discriminated against, the floor matron's PTSD-suffering son played by Michael from Jane the Virgin (Brett Dier) and Derek from Life With Derek (Michael Seater), so you can't forget them. Plus, Rosie O'Donnell shows up in a super short role in Season 2. You'll have to forgive moments of cheesiness (especially with Gladys) and a few terrible accents to see the heart that lies beneath. All three seasons (really two seasons and a 90-minute finale special) are on Netflix, and some are available on DVD from local library systems.
Because this list has so far included way too many shows from the 1900s, let's throw it all the way back to 1600s colonial Mexico! This miniseries dramatizes the life of a striking historical figure: Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century nun, scholar, poet and philosopher who was an important contributor to early Mexican literature and the Spanish Golden Age. In a time when girls were often not educated, Juana Inés was a prodigy who mastered Latin and other languages, theology and sciences before reaching her teens. In one of the miniseries' most striking scenes, a 16- or 17-year-old Juana Inés — "just a girl" — faces down an entire room full of priests, scholars and officials questioning her knowledge and answers Every. Damn. Question. With. Class. And. Sass. The show starts when she is thrown out of her aunt and uncle's house and essentially told to try her luck at joining the court of the Spanish viceroy. Juana Inés gains favor by reciting a, ahem, crude poem in an Aztec language to the viceroy and vicereine (that's the viceroy's wife), who takes a particular liking to Juana Inés. Throughout her quest for more learning, she is persecuted by officials and particularly the church. She becomes a cloistered nun in an attempt to be left alone to study, but even then men continually try to stop her, ordering her books removed and stealing her work. Always on her side are the first vicereine, Leonor, and her successor, Luisa, with whom Juana Inés has an intimate relationship. All seven episodes are streaming on Netflix.
Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl)
Speaking of throwing it way back to an underutilized setting, how about an Ottoman Empire drama? Haven't seen one of those in … well, ever. And that's a shame, because the rest of the world — well, 50 or so countries, anyway — have been enjoying this Turkish show that dramatizes the life of Suleiman (also spelled Suleyman) the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan, and his wife, Hurrem, who rose from a slave girl kidnapped in Crimea to become one of the most powerful women in history of the empire. Naturally, there are several impediments in the way of the girl originally named Alexandra (Meryem Uzerli), including the haunting deaths of her family, adapting to a new land and religion as a Russian Orthodox Christian, her bold attitude despite her position as a slave and Suleiman's wife, Mahidevran (Nur Fettahoğlu), who tries to kill her multiple times as she gains the favor of Suleiman (Halit Ergenç, Ali and Nino). The show intriguingly leaves open for a long time the question of whether Alexandra-turned-Hurrem is genuinely smitten by the sultan or just a schemer hoping to advance herself from slave to concubine to sultan. Regardless, petty and petulant don't even begin to describe her. Come for the (relatively sexless but oh-so-vicious) harem drama and strange slave/emperor love story, stay for the opulent costuming that showcases the uniquely East-meets-West culture of Turkey and the plethora of funny hats. (And do forgive the overly dramatic music.) Netflix only has Season 1 of 4 right now, but that season is 48 episodes long, so it should keep you occupied for a while.
Empresses in the Palace (The Legend of Zhen Huan)
More harem intrigue, you say? Lo and behold this Chinese series about the 18th century harem of the Qing Dynasty's Yongzheng Emperor (Chen Jianbin). In particular, it follows young Zhen Huan from her days wishing to be rejected from the harem so she can live a normal life to her falling in love with the emperor to her eventual transformation to bitter dowager empress (based on Empress Xiaoshengxian). The role even earned Sun Li (The Lost Bladesmen) an International Emmy Award nomination. The infighting here is even more vicious than in Magnificent Century, with one successful murder and several more attempts within the first episode, plus the women are endlessly trying to make each other infertile or miscarry. Let's just say everyone's idealism is shattered by the end. But also everyone looks fab being evil, especially the outrageous hairstyles and accessories. It's like a whole palace full of meaner Queen Amidalas from Star Wars. The whole series has been available on Netflix and is currently available on Amazon Prime.
EVEN MORE HAREM INTRIGUE, YOU SAY? Okay, so this one is only about one third harem intrigue and the rest is family drama and siyaasat — politics. The Indian drama follows the late reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great and his son Salim, who becomes the Emperor Jahangir. These eras of Mughal emperors are rife with popular love stories, from Akbar and Jodha (highly recommended Bollywood movie Jodhaa Akbar) to the legend of Salim and courtesan Anarkali (Bollywood classic Mughal-E-Azam) to Salim's son Shah Jahan and Mumtaz, for whom Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal. The central story in Siyasaat, however, is of Salim and Mehrunissa, who would become his 20th (?!?!) and final wife and later the empress Noor Jahan, particularly as derived from the novel The Twentieth Wife. The real story itself is pretty wild. Mehrunissa was already married when then-Prince Salim fell in love with her, and even after he became emperor and her husband died, she continued for several years to refuse to marry him; eventually, she consented, and historians believe she, not Jahangir, was the power behind the throne for most of his 22-year reign. So in addition to romance, this one's got plenty of political intrigue — including Salim rebelling against Akbar — to keep things interesting. Side note that I'm a major fan of Bollywood movies, but this is the first Indian TV show that has ever managed to hook me. Season 1 is on Netflix; no word yet on Season 2.
The Red Queen (Krosnaya Koroleva)
This Russian miniseries is another that dramatizes a real historical figure. In the '50s and '60s, Regina Zbarskaya (nee Kolesnikova) was the first Soviet model to become a celebrity in the West, often referred to as the Soviet Sophia Loren. She was also known as "the most beautiful Kremlin weapon," and the description on Amazon Prime teases involvement with the KGB. Don't get your hopes up for that particular storyline, but the tale does take you through several tragic moments in Regina's life and showcase the struggle of artists (in fashion and beyond) under a strict Soviet regime at the height of the Cold War. I'll admit there's a fair amount that's hard to understand in this show without historical context or an understanding of how many things worked under the Soviet Union, but oppression and depression are universal themes. All 12 episodes are on Amazon Prime. Brace yourself for the ending; it's a real kick in the gut.
The Time in Between (El tiempo entre costuras)
If you really do want fashion-meets-spy drama, check out this Spanish miniseries. It follows young seamstress Sira (Adriana Ugarte, Palm Trees in the Snow), who rebuilds her life after an elopement to Morocco goes wrong. And there's also the little matter of the Spanish Civil War. After building a dressmaking business in Morocco, she moves back to Madrid under a different name to build a couture clientele there with an assist from the British government, which enlists her help in spying on the wives of Nazi officers in Madrid. It goes even deeper when she begins spying more directly on the officers themselves when she's invited to their soirees. Cue the intrigue. All 11 episodes are on Netflix.