Hey, did you see that swords-and-swordplay drama on HBO? The one with all the violence and nudity?
You mean Rome?
That was like six years ago. I mean the recent one! With all the political scheming.
You mean The Borgias?
No, that was on Showtime. I mean the one with witches and magic wolves and prophecies.
You mean Camelot?
That was on Starz! I mean the one with Peter Dinklage.
Peter Dinklage wasn’t in The Tudors.
Screwball comedy aside, you’d be forgiven for confusing the many, many period dramas that have aired on premium cable in the last six years. A short list includes Rome, The Tudors, Deadwood, Spartacus, Boardwalk Empire, The Borgias, Camelot, Game of Thrones and doubtless several that I’m missing. The historical eras depicted by these films span thousands of years – and even enter the realm of fantasy – and several continents. But they all share one genre. In this genre, familiar stories are retold with an emphasis on violence, sex and dishonest scheming.
If there’s not a better name for this genre, I’m calling it Blood, Tits and Scowling.
As the first element of the genre, people have to die onscreen. And it’s got to be messy.
(video SFW, but with plenty of CGI splatter)
Even in stories where death is frequent, a death never has to be depicted onscreen. Several of Shakespeare’s most violent plays contain just as many offstage deaths as on. And even if it is depicted onscreen, a death never has to be bloody. Years of Westerns and war movies have conditioned us to the bark of a gunshot, the nameless henchman doubling over, and immediate stillness.
This is common sense, but I bring it up here just as a reminder. It’s easier to film a bloodless death than a bloody one. It’s hard to make fake blood, apply it at the right moment, and edit a series of frames together to make sure the blood appears after the loser has been stabbed and not before. So to wallow in gore as much as Spartacus, Game of Thrones and Rome do is a conscious choice. The producers set aside a portion of the budget for blood. Why? What is this in aid of?
Of course, if we have all death and no sex, it’s just The Seventh Seal. If critics of pop culture have taught us anything over the last hundred years, it’s that violence and sex must be intertwined in a confusing display. Our heroes must be equally capable of both dispatching armies of goons and of seducing the ingenue. Only once the sexification of violence (or the adrenalizing of pornography, either/or) is complete will Hollywood’s work be done.
The draw of sex is a big part of premium cable. Since HBO, Showtime and the other premium channels don’t rely on sponsors for revenue, they don’t have to worry about turning off any skittish marketing departments. Plus, in an era where a basic cable subscription will get you 70 channels for free, producers have to come up with reasons for viewers to shell out an additional $20 a month. Two pale, firm, bouncing reasons.
(Or one thick, dangling reason, but that’s pretty clearly an afterthought)
Lest critics write your period drama off as an exploitative display of sex and violence, however, you need some intrigue. People need to scheme against each other. You need a lot of whispered conferences in rooms with vaulted ceilings. Documents need to be obtained and passed along. Blackmail, espionage and deceit are the orders of the day.
The presence of political intrigue in these dramas should draw our attention for three reasons. First, scheming is typically considered a function of reason (higher level), while sex and violence are considered baser instincts (lower level). Perfumers are experts in blending top and bottom scents to create a complex olfactory experience. The producers of these shows are equally good at blending higher level intrigue and lower level carnality.
(Is the sex and violence a means to attract people to the intrigue? Or is the intrigue a gloss for the sex and violence? That’s one for the comment thread)
Second, scheming isn’t a necessary part of the genre. It doesn’t go hand in hand with violence and sex. You could depict a troop of 14th-century mercenaries screwing and slaughtering their way across France without adding in a lot of scheming. Or, for a less depressing visual, you could depict a bunch of sexy super-spies who jet around the globe stopping terrorists. Either way! The point is, there’s nothing inherent in sex and violence that requires intrigue.
Also, note that the genre requires not just scheming, but scowling. We can’t have heroes who are surrounded by dishonorable curs. We have to have plotters who are constantly angry at the ineptitude of their subordinates. Nucky Thompson is a 20th century Al Swearingen, who is a Wild West analogue of Tywin Lannister, who would love to be as powerful as Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, whose Catholic corruption paved the way for Henry VIII. These men are the centers of their universes. They’re fascinating to watch, but they’re anti-heroes at best.
Of course, they don’t have to be men. Recent years have brought us Morgan in Camelot, Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones and Atia in Rome. But whatever their gender, they need to scowl. The only joy they can show is, to quote Orwell, the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy.
A Delicious Cycle
The beauty of Blood, Tits and Scowling as a genre is that, when you put them all together, it creates a perpetual engine for drama. A competent showrunner and a good production team should never run out of episode ideas.
Start things off with forbidden love. Two handsome young people fight against their attraction but eventually succumb (tits). When her father / brother / husband find out, there will be hell to pay (blood). Meanwhile, his indiscretion can be used as leverage against him by a sinister manipulator (scowling). How will our lovers escape from this quandary? Either through violence (blood) or intrigue (scowling). Then there will be a temporary reprieve (tits) before the cycle begins anew.
So few genres contain this perpetual motion machine. Action movies depict a hero triumphing against overwhelming odds. What happens in the sequel, or the next season? How do you raise the stakes? Romantic dramas keep the hero and heroine at arm’s length to maximize the sexual tension. What happens when they consummate their passion? How do you keep viewers tuning in?
Here’s at least one reason why the Blood, Tits and Scowling genre has taken such a firm hold. The ingredients create instant drama. You either have higher-level reason taking advantage of the baser passions, or you have carnal desires undermining the works of reason. Either way, the structure keeps getting upset. Change is not only plausible, it’s constant. The story never has to end.
However, I want to focus our attention on period dramas in particular. Blood, Tits and Scowling aren’t necessarily historical tropes. You can have contemporary dramas with plenty of the above (see The Sopranos; see True Blood). So why spend the extra budget on Renaissance costumes? Why the interest in history?
To get into this, we need to explore why we love historical fiction. Why do the stories of real people in fictional situations appeal to us? Why didn’t we get enough in history class?