Chances are when you hear the phrase “period drama” you immediately think of chandeliers, ballgowns and unfailingly courteous manners. There’s the Dowager Countess’s deliciously timed barbs in Downton Abbey, for instance, the sunny optimism of post-war Britain in Call the Midwife, or the brooding, frilly-shirted heroes of Pride & Prejudice.
Recently, though, there’s been a trend for historical dramas that focus more on grit and squalor than glitz and nostalgia. The latest is Harlots, a tale of 18th century brothel owners, starring Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville, that starts streaming tonight (March 29) on Hulu.
Here’s a taster of what we have to look forward to:
Whoa. They don’t hold back, do they? Here’s 11 other gritty historical dramas that aim to show the past in all its blood, guts, and glory.
Moll Flanders (1996)
Long before they popped up as River Song and James Bond respectively, Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig starred in this raunchy adaptation of Daniel Defoe‘s 1722 novel. It tells the story of Moll, the “wickedest woman in England,” whose exploits include prostitution, pickpocketing, and aiding and abetting highwaymen.
Where to watch: Amazon
Ripper Street (2012 – 2016)
The first episode of this historical crime drama opened how it meant to continue — with the mutilated corpse of a young woman — and closed with another woman being drugged, raped, and almost choked to death on camera. Not one for the faint-hearted, it was nevertheless a fan favorite thanks to its depiction of the police precinct charged with bringing order to London as the 20th century approaches.
Where to watch: More details
Black Sails (2014 – 2017)
Ostensibly a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island, this historical adventure throws the novel’s fictional scurvy knaves – including John Silver, Captain Flint and Billy Bones – in with plenty of real-life buccaneers, from Calico Jack to Charles Vane. Starring acting royalty Toby Stephens (his mom is none other than that doyenne of period dramas, Dame Maggie Smith), it offers adventures on the high seas, swashbuckling quests for treasure and gory battles to the death.
The presence of Tom Hardy is a big enough clue that social decorum is not high on a show’s priorities, and sure enough, his Taboo co-star Stephen Graham called this historical thriller the “antidote to Downton Abbey.” It certainly doesn’t pull any punches, thrusting us straight into a grimy Georgian London where anything and anyone is for sale.
Deadwood (2004 – 2006)
Gritty, dirty, violent: this HBO drama about a frontier mining town is about as adult as it gets. With fantastic scripts and a stellar cast including Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant, this award-winning show is considered one of TV’s greatest.
To Walk Invisible (2017)
The literary success of the three extraordinary Brontë sisters is an inspiring tale, but this one-off drama by Happy Valley scribe Sally Wainwright gives it a tragic twist by setting it against the descent into alcohol and drug addiction of their much-lauded — and ultimately unsuccessful — brother Branwell.
Where to watch: PBS Masterpiece
Isabel (2012 – 2014)
This critically acclaimed Spanish series tells the story of the reign of Queen Isabella I of Castile, and boy, it doesn’t leave anything out. The royal court of 15th century Spain is ruled by greed, lust, lies, and, above all, an insatiable hunger for power, and filled with people every bit as ruthless as anyone in The Borgias.
Where to watch: Dramafever
Tipping the Velvet (2002)
This controversial show was adapted by War & Peace screenwriter Andrew Davies, who famously dubbed it “Pride and Prejudice with dirty bits.” It starred Rachael Stirling as Nan, an 18-year-old girl who falls in love with male impersonator Kitty (Keeley Hawes) and follows her to the sprawling metropolis of London. Oh, and that chap at the start of this clip looks darned familiar too…
Where to watch: Google Play
Rome (2005 – 2007)
If I, Claudius exposed its brutal underbelly, then Rome shows ancient politics in all its guts and gore. The ensemble drama tells the story of both ordinary plebeian soldiers (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) as well as noblemen such as Mark Antony (James Purefoy), during the time of the Roman Empire. But don’t expect Upstairs, Downstairs. It may be a period piece, but with its depictions of incest, torture, war and suicide, it has more of a gritty Game of Thrones vibe than that of a drawing room drama.
There was plenty of controversy on the other side of the pond when this steamy drama debuted, thanks in part to its graphic sex scenes. Chronicling the life of the Sun King Louis XIV as he moves his court from Paris to the new palace at Versailles, it made The Tudors look positively puritan.
Where to watch: OvationRead More