It’s Complicated: Thinking Historically about Historical Television Dramas

Allen Mikaelian, April 2014

Carolyn Eastman’s article in this issue about Turn, the Revolutionary War drama premiering on AMC this month, brings to mind several past articles in Perspectives, and points to what may be a golden opportunity for historians in the current cultural moment. Eastman clearly had fun with the pilot episode and the AMC press event in Richmond, Virginia, where much of the series is filmed. And the fun was relatively guilt-free: even if, as she notes, Turn sacrifices accuracy to drama in some areas, it doesn’t completely shy away from the complexity of the era. The long-forgotten loyalists are central to the story, and the struggle isn’t simplified into monolithic and united Americans against a faceless British empire. Hopefully it will retain this complexity as it moves forward.

“Moral, epistemological, and causal complexity,” according to Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, in their 2007 article in Perspectives, “distinguish historical thinking from the conception of ‘history’ held by many nonhistorians.” Their article, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”, is the most-viewed article in the AHA web archive, and continues to draw traffic every month. It’s a bit difficult to tell who exactly is doing the viewing, but the sheer numbers and the seasonal patterns suggest it is being used extensively in classrooms. And this should not be surprising, because the article is really useful in boiling down historical thinking to five elements—change over time, context, causality, contingency, complexity—a formulation that is perfect as an introduction to the discipline.

Andrews and Burke’s article is worth a read because convincing nonhistorians that the past is more complex than they think can be hard. Such an idea runs against ­engrained opinions, and introducing ­complexity, whether in a classroom or a television show, can raise strong emotions when it challenges ideas of nation, identity, and political orientation, as it is likely to do. The public has not always been perceived as receptive to what historians do with complexity. The historical film of the last Oscar season, Spielberg’s Lincoln, portrayed the president as a complex character, but the story, many historians pointed out, was presented as simple—both morally and in terms of causality. Nevertheless, AHA executive director James Grossman wrote in Perspectives that this film is, whatever its faults, an “opportunity for historians.”

I sense another opportunity before historians, and this one opens the door to even deeper levels of historical thinking. Turn is only one of several recent critically acclaimed shows that force viewers to grapple with moral, epistemological, and causal complexity. Moral complexity and ambiguity are par for the course in many of the new series that have caused commentators to call this a new golden age of television. We see complexity and ambiguity in shows that are set historically, like Mad Men, or in an alternate fantastical history, like Game of Thrones, or in the present, like Breaking Bad. This surprising phenomenon is an opportunity to talk publicly about one of the most difficult aspects of thinking historically—and to hold historical shows like Turn to a new standard while introducing an even more difficult concept, that of contingency.

Despite the move toward complexity in Turn, Eastman notes, there is still no question as to where our sympathies should lie. This is not so clearly the case in another historical spy drama, The Americans, set in the early 1980s and now in its second season on FX. Here, viewers are given two KGB agents so deeply humanized that their crimes and ruthlessness are clearly meant to be forgiven, at least momentarily. However, it may be easier to do so because the American characters in the series repeatedly remind the KGB agents (and the viewers) that the Soviets are going to lose. This is presented as a more or less accomplished fact. The viewers’ embrace of complexity and their empathy for an enemy is made possible, perhaps, by the show’s implied certainty.

Contingency, according to Andrews and Burke, “offers a powerful corrective to ­teleology, the fallacy that events pursue a straight-arrow course to a pre-determined outcome, since people in the past had no way of anticipating our present world.” And the Cold War was certainly not a straight arrow. So this series, one that makes an effort to get so much right (it was created by a former CIA officer), fails historical thinking in this one regard to succeed in another.

Perhaps. Or perhaps the teleological certainty expressed so often in this show is itself historically accurate. Perhaps the characters heard, and took to heart, Ronald Reagan saying that his strategy for the Cold War was simple: “We win, they lose.” Reagan’s statement was itself a vision of history as much as of the future, as much a dismissal of complexity as of contingency. And it masked the complexity of the steps he took toward that goal, like the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka Star Wars). In The Americans, SDI is an utter enigma. No one—not even the US Air Force officers who work on it, and certainly not the KGB—is certain if it is Reagan’s folly or part of an enormous and shrewd psy-op. Their confusion is by now, of course, enshrined in historical debates about what led to the end of the Cold War.

These shows get much wrong, in terms of facts, context, and contingency, but even the things they are wrong about present opportunities for historians. We shouldn’t overburden or overanalyze these programs, or rely on them for factual precision, but they do point to a potentially ripe cultural moment in which students of history and the public at large may be more receptive than ever to having their assumptions challenged by historical thinking.

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.

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