Who doesn’t like to get transported to another time? The shows below are some of the best historical pieces on television, and definitely favorites.
Please remember that with have almost two dozen favorites lists that we couldn’t showcase every show on every list, so we parsed them out a bit to make it more fun.
And these lists are not in any particular order. They’re in the order the entries were received by TV Fanatic staff, so don’t read into them!
To qualify, a show that began in another decade had to be airing during the decade, run a larger number of seasons from 2010 through 2019 if it started before 2010 or run the entire decade. Here we go!
Downton Abbey – PBS (2010-2015)
Regal. Opulent. Downton Abbey was the pinnacle of refined class mixed with cheeky British wit during its six seasons of the air.
The series followed the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants as they dealt with the restrictions and rules that plagued them in polite society.
Downton Abbey pulled us in with its stunning fashion choices and well-developed characters; the characters were rooted with deep aspirations and thoughts that typically extended outside of their station. And it was this plot duality that made Downton Abbey truly shine.
The series showcased how both sides of the class structure struggled under the weight of their placement. Whether you rooted for the servants on the bottom floor or the Crawleys above, the series showcased how the characters and plots were affected during the 1910s – 1920s.
Vikings – History (2013-2020)
Vikings debuted as one of the most thrilling series on the air.
Airing after the success of The Tudors from the previous decade, it took a step even farther back into history that ultimately brought the lore of an entire civilization to life on the small screen.
Ragnar, Lagertha, Rollo, and Loki started it, but the next generation is carrying it home as the Norse men and women explore and conquer well beyond their initial small footprint on the planet.
And the Vikings production value and performances proved that History could deliver on scripted content.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – Amazon Prime (2017-present)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel takes place in 1950s New York – a time when divorce was frowned upon and women were encouraged to be stay-at-home moms.
Lading lady Mrs. Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) broke the rules by pursuing a crazy dream in stand-up comedy triggered by her schmuck of a husband’s cheating.
With the help of her plucky manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), she takes the world of standup comedy by storm bumping into history (hello, Lenny Bruce!) along the way. But the real humor comes from Maisel’s very old-school, very Jewish parents who absolutely disapprove of her decisions and new lifestyle.
With the signature witty dialogue from creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino and more colorful costumes and sets than should be allowed, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is an entertaining and immersive experience with history.
Stranger Things – Netflix (2016-present)
The ‘80s have never looked more fun than it has during Stranger Things.
Sure, there are creepy Demogorgons to fight and the “Upside Down” ruined life for the characters in Hawkins, Indiana, but Stranger Things has all the neon energy that reminds you of why the ‘80s were so cool.
From the music to the clothing and hairstyles, this is the perfect time capsule. And, with the rise of Dungeons & Dragons, how much more ‘80s can it get?
With a great cast of characters and a gripping supernatural mystery pushing the plot, Stranger Things is an addictive and fun series to watch.
Halt and Catch Fire – AMC (2014-2017)
Set on the creative minds who helped make the PC and the World Wide Web available to all, Halt and Catch Fire somehow made the life of tech geeks seem thrilling.
The rivalry, the upsets, the achievements, and the innovation all played out against a deep character drama while shedding light on life before the technological advances we take for granted today.
Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, and Kerry Bishé led the talented cast and brought to life an unlikely group of characters intricately tied to one another no matter how far they strayed from their original efforts to make their technological mark.
The Americans – FX (2013-2018)
The best thing about The Americans was trying to imagine in what ways Philip and Elizabeth Jennings would be affected by raising a family from their arranged marriage in a country they’re actively betraying because of their allegiance to their motherland.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell perfectly portrayed their characters as they were put through the rings as agonizing decisions about life, family, and national loyalty were made on the fly.
Right up to the finale, we had no idea if they would survive let alone whether they would stay in America and embrace everything they’ve lived for decades or whether they’d return home.
Somehow, the show managed to film a show set in the ’70s and ’80s in a way that never seemed as dated as it could have. The topics are so incendiary, and the family drama was so effectively written that it plays for the ages.
The Crown – Netflix (2016-present)
The Crown is an absolute masterpiece! Sheer perfection from its costuming to stellar cast to storytelling progression.
Established in six parts (as of the time of this writing, only three seasons have been released), The Crown follows the years of Queen Elizabeth II as she ascended the crown and led the monarchy, as well as her family and the public/government who grew with the times alongside her.
The Crown exposes many of the hurdles hidden away within the royal family as they dealt with scandal and increasing pressure on their royal duties.
While certain parts are embellished and dramatized, the series is a breathtaking look at the royals and the astonishing acting talent who portrays them. (Seriously, Claire Foy is incredible!)
Mad Men – AMC (2007-2015)
Mad Men is a powerful look into the cutthroat world of 1960s advertising men. Running for seven seasons, Mad Men followed creative director Don Draper during his pursuit of big business, beautiful women, and financial success.
Rounding out the story included his tumultuous home life, his endless affairs, and the business politics that pitted coworker against coworker in his workplace agency.
Man Men is an amazing look into the culture of the ‘60s, from clothing to the abundance of cigarettes to the ideals/beliefs that citizens had during that time.
Mad Men never shied away from showcasing how life was like during that era.
Mindhunter – Netflix (2017-present)
As with any field of study, it takes time to research and develop before it becomes an established practice.
Mindhunter on Netflix follows the history of how the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit created a methodology for finding and analyzing serial killers.
The series is set between the 1970s-80s and everything down to the products used fit within the time period.
Mindhunter goes to great lengths to mimic the feel of the decades and how the culture/styles shifted through the years, as well as the attitudes of his characters.
GLOW – Netflix (2017-present)
Ever wondered how the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” (GLOW) came to be? This fictionalized TV series is inspired by the real-life events that launched a syndicated women’s professional wrestling circuit.
GLOW takes place in the ‘80s, and just like the big personalities of the wrestling characters, the hair is big, the neon colors are bold, and the nostalgia is at peak fun!
The series captures the vibe of the decade and how the characters’ development is shaped by the era.
Plus, the strength of the cast and the strong bonds between the characters makes this one of the best TV series (especially one that promotes female friendships) of the decade.
Good Girls Revolt – Amazon Prime (2016)
For one glorious season, feminism at an American magazine the likes of Newsweek Magazine in the late 1960s by focusing on several news researchers who found advancing beyond the role despite their education and qualifications difficult because of their gender.
The cast was great including Anna Camp, Genevieve Angelson, Hunter Parrish, Jim Belushi, Joy Bryant, and Grace Gummer.
Good Girls Revolt wonderfully expressed the culture of the time through sets and costumes and stories that still resonate today.
Godless – Netflix (2017)
This character-driven drama could fit into many categories, but for its limited nature, it’s landing here in period drama. Another series addressing gender issues, this one does it through the American West.
When a town loses all of its men in a mining disaster, the women step up to keep things afloat.
From more men hoping to make a killing by running the town and the mine again to a local band of thugs goes on the run, men try to topple the matriarchy.
The beautifully filmed and smartly written drama starred Jeff Daniels, Michelle Dockery, Merritt Weaver, Jack O’Connell, Sam Waterston, and Scoot McNairy.
When Calls the Heart – Hallmark (2014-present)
Erin Krakow stars as Elizabeth Thatcher in this sweet and modest romantic drama airing on Hallmark Channel.
A young teacher leaving her home in the city for adventures unknown, the series begins in 1910 in Canada.
Although it’s a light drama, the series initially dealt with the hardships of mining, especially with respect to safety issues.
As with many Hallmark dramas, When Calls the Heart explores relationships pre-sex, and the sets and costumes are lovely.
Boardwalk Empire – HBO (2010-2014)
Set in Prohibition Era Atlantic City, the story of the rise and fall of Nucky Thompson held nothing back as it explored the personal relationships, political dealings, and outright brutality of the early mobster organizations of the American East Coast.
The production value of this Martin Scorsese project never failed to impress, garnering seventeen Creative Arts Emmys in its five-year run.
Stellar performances by the likes of Steve Buscemi, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gretchen Mol, and Jack Huston shine through a powerful, multi-faceted narrative that led to perhaps the most perfect series finale ever.
Manhattan – WGN America (2014-2015)
Manhattan was the first scripted show curated for WGN America in an endeavor to make a mark in the content marketplace.
The series followed the scientists who created the atomic bomb and their while encamped at a small, makeshift (and secret) town off Los Alamos, New Mexico. The cast was incredibly talented and tthe story tightly written.
Manhattan explored the sacrifices made by the greatest minds in the world and their families and the marked impact they had on history as they worked diligently to bring an end to World War II.
The debate surrounding the achievement rages on to this day, and cutting short such groundbreaking television was a shame.
Hell on Wheels – AMC (2011-2016)
Former Confederate soldier Cullen Bohannon was still suffering from the horrors of the Civil War, and he was hell-bent on making the Union soldiers who killed his wife pay for their transgression.
The series follows Bohannan as he worked building the Union Pacific Railroad in the town that forever remained at the end of the line, Hell on Wheels.
Lives were lost. Blood was spilled. The railroad was completed. And Bohannan found a way to move forward.
Even with some of its misgivings, Hell on Wheels was a ride worth taking.
What’s YOUR favorite period show of the decade?