We are constantly moving forward through time, but curiosity, and sometimes even nostalgia, can keep us attached to our historical past.
Avid history buffs might desire to see some of our favorite time periods and iconic moments of history play out in person. We can only imagine what it might have been like to stand shoulder to shoulder with the activists at the 1963 March on Washington or with the Napoleonic soldiers at the Battle of Waterloo. Others look to the past as a simpler time. The innocent memories of our childhood can keep us looking backward and longing for what is gone.
For those of us who would like to time travel to get a glimpse at what we missed or recapture our days of old, we might have to wait quite a while—forever, even—before that is a possibility.
But some of our favorite period series can hold us over in the meantime, visually immersing viewers in the culture and society of some of the most interesting and pivotal historical eras. They give us the closest taste of time travel that we have so far.
So from Mrs. America to The Crown, check out some of the best programming for your imagination’s visual journey to the past below.
FX’s Mrs. America is definitely the show for those with an interest in 20th Century Politics and the Second Wave Feminist movement. Set in the 1970s, the miniseries dramatizes the little told story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the legislation that would have guaranteed equal rights under the law regardless of sex or gender. It explores this history through the eyes of feminist luminaries and political leaders like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), the conservative activist who led a backlash against the ERA.
With cameos from the National Organization of Women, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” and Ms. Magazine, this series does an excellent job of establishing the cultural environment of its time, immersing viewers in the developments that laid the foundation for feminism in the modern era.
Streaming on FX and Hulu
The British royal family has captured the societal imagination for decades upon centuries, becoming a pop cultural phenomenon of their own, in and beyond the British territories. Netflix’s The Crown explores the real life history of this storied family, starting with the ascension to the throne by Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy, Olivia Colman), who has served as her kingdom’s longest reigning monarch. Charging through the monumental decades of her ruling life at Buckingham Palace in the mid 20th century, the series documents the real world events that have challenged her personally and politically, like the infamous 1966 Aberfan coal mining disaster or the relationship turmoil faced by the Queen with Phillip and other members of the royal family.
Fanatics of the royal family can relish in this unprecedented glimpse into one of the most mysterious and prestigious political seats in global history and dive into their extravagant and highly fanciful 20th century life.
Streaming on Netflix
Courtesy of Netflix
F is for Family
Bill Burr’s adult animated series F is for Family serves nostalgia with a side of painful memories, as it explores dysfunctional family and growing up in 1970s midwestern America. The comedy drama conjures wistfulness through its simple animation and the suburban scenery of the time period: children playing (and hurting themselves) in the streets on summer nights without supervision, back when that was more commonplace.
Main character Frank (voiced by Burr), is the macho archetype of the working class ’70s dad, a reminder in many ways of Archie Bunker from All in the Family. For those sentimental about their ’70s youth and family life, this series hits all the feels and keeps the laughs coming all the while.
Streaming on Netflix
Criminal defense attorney Perry Mason has been a hit with audiences since his introduction to the world by author Erle Stanley Garden in his 1931 debut novel The Case of the Velvet Claws. His most recent iteration in the new hit HBO series follows Mason (Matthew Rhys) at the outset of his law career in 1930s Los Angeles, a time of great prosperity for the city while the rest of the world crumbled under the Great Depression.
The series has received strong reviews, especially for its approach to the visual aspects, such as the style, architecture and fashion, of its time and setting. It also uniquely explores the interesting Evangelical Christian culture that continued to develop in early 20th century America through the eyes of Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), a preacher and leader of the Radian Assembly of God.
Streaming on HBO Max
Ryan Murphy’s Hollywoodreimagines the story of the City of Angels’ Golden Age, a period of creative and economic boom for America’s burgeoning film industry. It follows an ensemble of aspiring actors and filmmakers in post-World War II Hollywood as they strive to make their dreams come true, dealing with personal and social setbacks along the way. The series is unique for its incorporation of the stories of real world luminaries like Rock Hudson (Jack Picking), Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah).
With hindsight and a contemporary eye, it gives many of these figures the triumphant and victorious narrative they were not able to achieve in the real world Hollywood of the time, especially because of things like race, sexuality and socioeconomic status.
Streaming on Netflix
Courtesy of Comedy Central
One of Comedy Central’s hilarious staples for the past several years has been Drunk History, an educational comedy that dedicates each episode to drunken narrations of the stories of history’s most pivotal figures. Host Derek Waters gets dangerously inebriated with his guests before they journey back through time to explore the life of their designated luminary for that episode, leaving room for any and everything to happen midway through the narration.
The histories get reenacted in real time by an ensemble cast of big names from film and television, like Octavia Spencer as Harriet Tubman, Will Ferrell as Roald Dahl, and Aubrey Plaza as Cleopatra. The series provides dedicated reconstructions of the various histories it explores, taking viewers on a hilarious, drunken ride through the past.
Streaming on Hulu
Courtesy of Netflix
The Umbrella Academy
Fan favorite superhero series The Umbrella Academyhas journeys to the past built into its storyline, especially through Five (Aidan Gallagher), whose abilities include time travel and teleportation through space. Through his work with the Commission, a mysterious network of time traveling assassins and timeline “keepers,” he is constantly sucked back and forth through different eras. His abilities eventually land the Umbrella Academy gang in the 1960s, where Season 2 is set.
Each of the Hargreeves siblings are charged with creating new lives in this era of political assassinations, Civil Rights movement, imminent nuclear disaster, and psychedelic cults. The setting and scenery are certainly a blast from the past and allow viewers to follow their modern-day heroes as they immerse themselves in a completely different version of America.
Streaming on Netflix
Another of Murphy’s acclaimed period dramas, Poseexplores the iconic ballroom culture of New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, fictionalizing some of the narratives and perspectives seen in media like the pivotal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. Much of its charm comes from its setting: the eclectic colorful fashions, postmodern culture, and emerging music scenes of the 1980s all bring the real world history of the series to life in visually stunning ways. It also takes a more serious note, documenting the real world AIDS crisis that rocked the LGBT community in particular throughout the 1980s.
This series is especially perfect for those with a bit of 1980s nostalgia or who have an appreciation for ’80s history, culture, and the social movements that developed then.