Why you should be writing a TV period pilot… like now


Claire Foy in The Crown. Photo courtesy: Netflix

If you like to write historical dramas, now is the time for you to shine – at least on television. Streaming platforms are pouring millions of dollars into these shows, so you if don’t have a one hour TV pilot in repertoire, you might want to think about adding one.

Look around Netflix, PBS, FX and even the CW, and you’ll find sexy, edgy, deliciously decadent and wickedly violent period dramas that are capturing the world’s attention. If The Crown, about the early years of Queen Elizabeth II, doesn’t completely scratch your itch for corset-gnarled British Queens, there’s Victoria, about Queen Victoria who brought England into the modern era and Reign, about Mary Queen of Scotts and her deadly rivalry with her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Still not enough? Coming soon according to Variety is a new season of Feud: Charles and Diana, set to detail one of the most tortured marriages in Royal history.

So, why is historical drama ruling airways and stream-ways in 2017?

There are a few reasons. Let’s start with the world-wide popularity of Downton Abbey. Winner of numerous Emmys and Golden Globes, this period drama stole the hearts of female and male romantics not only in the U.S., but the show surprisingly had over 160 million viewers in China. The Chinese are so fascinated with the wealth and status of the Great Britain of yesteryear, they’ve even created Thames Town, a reproduction of an English village complete with cobblestone streets that serves as the perfect wedding venue for China’s young, upwardly mobile generation.

Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, and Laura Carmichael in Downton Abbey. Photo courtesy: PBS

The success of Downtown seems to have granted television networks and streaming platforms permission to look backward, tell stories about strong female characters and indulge in glorious and expensive costumes. But it’s not all about the women – shows like Taboo, Peaky Blinders and Vikings are all very male-centric, suggesting that period dramas aren’t just popular because of their romantic storylines.

Another reason audiences are turning to history for entertainment may be a more troubling one. In times of social upheaval and political instability, people examine history not only as a way to learn from the mistakes of previous generations, but also as reassurance that the human race eventually solves its problems and again thrives. In today’s global culture, Great Britain is dealing with Brexit, the U.S. is a nation divided politically and economically, we are haunted by senseless acts of terror, and the effects of climate change are threatening everyone.  It’s no wonder we’re looking to history for answers – our problems are big, complex and scary. But there is hope: from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare’s histories, looking to the past may be one of the best ways to see a path forward (or a path to avoid).

And then there’s plain old escapism. If your social media pages are full of people arguing over President Trump’s latest tweet, you may find a lot of solace in spending an hour in a simpler time, before digital screens and the internet ruled our lives. The lush, rural Scottish highlands of Outlander provide a pleasant reprieve from today’s crowded, fast-paced world of selfies and reality TV.

Here are a five of the best, lesser-known period dramas you can stream right now if you’re craving some history:

Noémie Schmidt in Versailles. Photo courtesy: Ovation

No. 1 — Versailles

Set in 1667 France, Versailles tells the story of King Louis XIV’s (George Blagden), bold action of moving his royal court from Paris to his father’s provincial hunting lodge. Full of political intrigue, sexy social climbers and characters committed to defying social norms, this is one of the best shows available right now. We’re happy to report that season two is coming this fall. Stream on Amazon or watch on the Ovation channel.

Tom Hardy in Taboo. Photo courtesy: FX Networks

No. 2 — Taboo

There has never been a show so visually and emotionally rousing as Taboo. Written and created by Steven Knight (check out our interview with him about Allied), the show is set in 1814 London with the lucrative shipping trade as a backdrop. Tom Hardy stars as Delaney, a man of despicable character with a mysterious past that includes his Native American mother who endowed him with mystical abilities. In love with his half-sister, Zylpha (Oona Chaplin), Delaney struggles to right a generation of wrongs. Stream at fxnetworks.com.

Vanessa Kirby in The Crown (2016). Photo courtesy: Netflix

No. 3 — The Crown

Tracing the early days of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), The Crown is the most expensive TV show ever made, costing Netflix $130 million. A reproduction of the Queen’s real wedding dress cost $35k alone. Netflix plans to stream six seasons of the show that will take us up to modern day where the real Queen is now 90 years old.

Shalita Grant and McKinley Belcher III in Mercy Street (2016). Photo courtesy: PBS

No. 4 —  Mercy Street

Set in Virginia at the height of the Civil War, Mercy Street centers on an abolitionist nurse, Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who works to save wounded soldiers in a makeshift hospital inside a Confederate family’s home. Stream on PBS.org or Amazon Prime.

Aisha Hinds in Underground. Photo courtesy: Amazon Prime

No. 5 — Underground

Underground tells the mostly unexplored story of the Underground Railroad, a covert operation to help slaves escape to freedom at the risk of death (or worse) in Antebellum Georgia. Starring Journee Smollett-Bell and Christopher Meloni, you can stream this show on Amazon Prime.

Let us know your favorite period pieces and why in the comments below.





Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

18 Replies to "Why you should be writing a TV period pilot... like now"

  • comment-avatar
    peter d myers March 13, 2017 (11:07 am)

    good article, Shanee. keep it up. coincidentally, i have a 5 epi historical drama mini-series completely drafted which will go into ICM soon (in a pilot plus outlines of 4 epi’s presentation format) via my producer. good timing, eh?

  • comment-avatar
    Janice March 13, 2017 (11:26 am)

    Yeah, I have a whole screenplay. GrapeFruit Moon… I’m not chasing or paying. If someone wants to step outside the norm, send me a message.

    • comment-avatar
      Kerry McG March 16, 2017 (10:40 pm)

      I’m intrigued… what’s it about?

  • comment-avatar
    Carlo Driggs March 13, 2017 (12:39 pm)

    Carlo Driggs – March 13, 2017 (3:21 PM)
    Hi Shanee, I’ve just finished my first draft on a spec-screenplay that can go either way to TV or film. It’s fiction based on historical facts about three days before the assassination of President Kennedy. It’s an original story but, unfortunately I don’t have an agent or management, any advice?

  • comment-avatar
    John Donnellan March 13, 2017 (1:09 pm)

    This would make an excellent series.

    Danger in the Clouds: The Life Story of a Pioneer Pilot, Joe Donnellan
    by John Donnellan

    Danger in the Clouds starts out when Joe Donnellan is 13 years old. The book continues to move, chapter by chapter, through Joe’s exciting true-life story. It tells how Joe tried to enlist as a pilot for the U.S. Army Air Force during WW1 at the age of 16. Joe was turned down, so he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew for them till the end of WW1. Joe was…

    • comment-avatar
      Jerry April 3, 2017 (8:41 pm)

      Might be interested. I just finished a WW1 screenplay.

  • comment-avatar
    Sean Martin March 13, 2017 (4:11 pm)

    The little mentioned BLACK SAILS, about the real Pirates of the Caribbean. Gorgeously shot, impeccably detailed in its production design — and the cast aint half bad to watch either. A prequel to TREASURE ISLAND, it’s done an admirable job of telling the story-before-the-story… and the opening credits are indeed to die for.

  • comment-avatar
    Honoria Glass March 13, 2017 (4:31 pm)

    I dunno … if these are already produced, it may be a fine time for viewers but as for writers they should be getting on to the next thing, not the last thing already done …writers have to know where it’s at but be where it’s going .

  • comment-avatar
    Geno March 13, 2017 (5:16 pm)

    I’m going to assume that this is only your opinion, Shawnee, because the “facts” are questionable. First, your position of “now is the time to write historical dramas” because of the success of a handful of other historical dramas is just silly. These productions were in development and started their process five years or more ago. I’m sure you’re aware of NOT chasing what’s hot now, because when you’re project is ready, it’s already passe. Next, your explanation of “social upheaval” both here and across the pond is beyond ridiculous. Brexit is no more an issue in the U.K. and EU than gas prices are an issue here. There is no “social upheaval” in the states, either. Divided? Perhaps, but being divided is A) not new, and B) not a reason for historical dramas. In fact, social upheaval in the real world usually brings more science fiction, or “futuristic/Armageddon” storylines, with more hopeful stories, looking to a brighter future. People don’t look back and think “we made it through the Civil War, we’ll make it through crooked media and politicians!”

    The reason to be writing ANY TV dramas is because the amount of time that needs to be filled in TV, with their 500+ channels, and that the talent pool is switching to television that to NOT write for television is like the guy who insisted his buggy whip company could survive this fad called “gasoline driven cars”. Whether you write historical dramas (an extremely expensive prospect), or write half-hour comedies, the days of movie theaters are numbered.

  • comment-avatar
    Suzanne O'Keeffe March 15, 2017 (9:13 am)

    I’m obsessed with Turn: Washington’s Spies! Impeccable cast, beautifully filmed and exceptional writing. Brings the entire era of the Revolutionary War to life and it’s supremely relevant to our own social upheaval. It’s given me plenty of insights about our country’s founding that I had no idea about. Highly recommend.

  • comment-avatar
    gkn March 23, 2017 (5:21 pm)

    If you like Turn, I’d recommend Tom Hanks mini-series, “John Adams” too. Only 5 or 6 episodes, I think, but beautifully done (except for the scenes in France, which were too clichéd) and very relevant too. On a totally different historical subject, I also recommend “The Knick”.

  • comment-avatar
    Youlanda Brewster March 28, 2017 (8:35 am)

    Wow, I have a script THE SUN SHINES BRIGHTEST AT MIDNIGHT, adapted from the novel (in stores 13 April) which covers a family history from the 1800s to the present and 3 continents. Multi-racial and multi-cultural fare. Was just told a couple days ago it would make a great series… and yet I wait…

  • comment-avatar
    DSW March 31, 2017 (2:11 pm)

    Uh, I think you mean in “plain old escapism,” not “plane.”

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly March 31, 2017 (3:20 pm)

      Thank you for catching that!

  • comment-avatar
    Willow May 13, 2017 (7:12 pm)

    If you’d like to research what’s come before in the genre, there’s a resource called The Period Films List on Willow and Thatch. You may also want to search through some of the recent articles on what historical / costume period adaptations are in the works. You can also get a sense of what fans like by reading through the comments. http://www.willowandthatch.com

  • comment-avatar
    Conchita Franco Serri September 12, 2017 (10:09 pm)

    Great article. Netflix is hot for this type of stuff. I just completed a script for an upcoming film(fiction/drama): The War Necklace – with my co-writer, award winning novelist and scriptwriter, Lee Chavis; and I am also producing a historical TV drama circa 1821 in revolutionary Venezuela featuring a stubborn Spanish heroine who was exiled by Bolivar for pledging her allegiance to the King. Targeted for Latino markets, in Spanish, the production is based on my book with my mom as co-writer: Josefa Marquesa del Pumar. Seeking VC funding and a mentor. Check our Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/MarquesaJosefa

  • comment-avatar
    Steven Shearer July 8, 2022 (6:42 pm)

    @YOULANDA BREWSTER Hi, I wonder if I could ask for advice about how to take the story of 4 English children from 1890 + to 1920s in Canada from an outline to a script ? I’m available for online meeting, and am based in BC, Canada (GMT-8). I’ve done a bunch of research, but know nothing about character development nor the interpersonal conversations in a script. I have Final Draft v12 and have started an outline there. I’ve also experimented with a visual novel game engine in order to create a semi-animated video.

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