26 Period Dramas That Will Take You Back

Leah Marilla Thomas
·7 min read

Modern day got you down? Take a journey to the past with these period dramas. If you're all about old-timey courtship and wish you could settle your personal drama with a duel... first of all, yikes, but second of all, these films and television shows are for you.

As someone who grew up thinking that period dramas were just for bookish girls who thought drinking tea was a personality trait—I can say that, because I was one of those girls—it's been thrilling to watch the genre become... how do I say this... sexy? Not even just that, it's like Hollywood loosened its collective corset strings and decided that period drama was not going to be a bunch of stuffy, chaste, boring white people anymore. No disrespect to Colin Firth and his wet blouse in Pride and Prejudice, which has a lot of merit on its own, but society has moved past the need for that kind of period drama. Old and new, here's what you should check out the next time you want to check out and indulge in another period.

Bridgerton

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Chances are if you're a fan of the genre, you've already binged Shonda Rhimes' adaptation of the novel series by Julia Quinn. The second season will be here before we know it, so catch up or treat yourself to a rewatch.

Emma.

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Between this and Queen's Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy was all over our screens in 2020. Jane Austen adaptations are always a favorite for period drama enthusiasts. But there's something so fresh about Autumn de Wilde's film, like lemon twist garnish.

Sanditon

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Speaking of Austen, her unfinished manuscript got the adaptation it deserved thanks to PBS. Before Bridgerton, this was the series fans turned to as proof that just because a story has corsets and piano-fortes doesn't necessarily mean it has to have an all-white cast and tell only white stories. Speaking of...

Belle

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Amma Asante's film about a young mixed-race girl growing up as a ward at an English country estate in the 1700s is the "Cinderella" story you never knew you needed. It's part legal drama, too, and based on a true story.

The Handmaiden

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Set in Japan-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, this thriller has a super horny reputation. It's about a man who thinks he has the perfect get-rich-quick scheme: marry an heiress and get her committed to an insane asylum (rude)... then everything goes wrong when she falls in love with someone else.

Downton Abbey

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The recent revival of the period drama is quite possibly all thanks to Downton. The Crawley family had us all enraptured for years, and rightfully so. Even the movie left us wanting for more drama. Creator Julian Fellowes' Titanic mini-series, The English Game, and Belgravia are, in addition, underrated gems in the genre.

Harlots

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There are only so many good things you can say about Harlots without becoming what the kids call a simp. The show is about rival houses of sex workers in 18th century London. There is romance and murder. It's not whitewashed in the slightest. It's funny. Harlots will change your life.

Call the Midwife

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Contrary to what the image that keeps popping up on my Netflix screen would have me believe, this is not a show about bikes. It's set in the '50s and '60s, which is a bit late for a period drama. However, it is super popular and in later seasons stars Promising Young Woman writer/director Emerald Fennell, who is the moment.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

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Hello, may I interest you in joining the cult of Dev Patel? He's so freaking charming in this inventive adaptation of the Dickens novel that I want to scream! Also, cravates for days!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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For some reason, there are a lot of wlw (women who love women) films these days set in the past. Many find that frustrating, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is nothing short of a masterpiece. Movie nights don't get much better than this.

Anne with an E

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Sure sure, there's an older adaptation of Anne of Green Gables that many of us grew up with and aren't willing to replace. It's totally understandable if you can't part with your original OTP, Anne and Gilbert. However, the Netflix adaptation took steps to tell a more inclusive and thoughtful story this go around—and it's worth an indulgent binge!

The Great

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Hulu dropped the perfect sinister and silly period drama about Catherine the Great, courtesy of the guy who wrote The Favourite. So if you missed it last year, do catch up.

Little Women

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The '90s Little Women was a period drama staple in my household. I craved it every Christmas. Then came Greta Gerwig. I'll always hold the former in my heart, but the new adaptation absolutely crushed it.

Hamilton

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If the professionally-shot recording of the stage musical Hamilton gets to be nominated for Golden Globes, then screw it; I get to consider Hamilton one of our best period dramas. Try and tell me "Take a Break" doesn't give you all the Jane Austen-y feels.

Wuthering Heights

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This newish adaptation of Emily Brontë's novel is as rainy and sleepy as the setting — and Andrea Arnold went on to direct American Honey, several episodes of Transparent, and much of the second season of Big Little Lies. She does not mess around.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung

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If you're thinking about getting into K-dramas and are slightly overwhelmed by the selections on Netflix, this period drama might be an excellent place to start! It's about female historians who defy gender norms and traditions... and get in some scandalous drama along the way.

Pride & Prejudice

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You can't just have one Austen adaptation on the list, and skipping over that hand flex could be consdered a war crime in some circles.

Mary, Queen of Scots

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You love Margot Robbie. You love Saoirse Ronan. You love Gemma Chan. Why haven't you watched them corset it up together in Mary, Queen of Scots? Oh, also, actor and songwriter Joe Alwyn is in it.

Black Sails

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What started as a prequel to Treasure Island became a pirate epic with so many fans and some truly bad*ss ladies at the helm. If you miss big sprawling shows like Game Of Thrones and don't mind a little violence in your period drama, check it out.

Frontier

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A period drama starring Jason Momoa? Set in 18th century Canada? Tell me more, please!

Grantchester

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Set in the 1950s, this one is also pushing the definition of a true period drama. There's not a corset in sight. But you deserve to watch a hot priest solve cozy mysteries on the English countryside... you really do!

Howards End

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It's somewhat rare for a period drama to feel feminist in a modern way (and not like, an Arya Stark tomboy-type saying she wants to play with swords, or whatever) and the mini-series adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel really achieves that. However, don't get me wrong, these independent women may be relatable in ideology... but they are very, very rich.

The Spanish Princess

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Another series that doesn't act like people of color "suddenly" arrived in the United Kingdom in the 20th century, The Spanish Princess is a fresh and modern take on Catherine of Aragon... who most of us just know as Henry VIII's first and very Catholic wife.

Still Star-Crossed

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Before Bridgerton, Shondaland went Shakespeare fanfic on us with Still Star-Crossed, an unfortunately short-lived period drama about the Montagues and the Capulets in the aftermath of the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. Bonus incentive: it stars Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel), Torrance Coombs (Reign) and Shazad Latif (Star Trek Discovery).

Colette

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Sure, Keira Knightley is the queen of corsets and period dramas. Maybe that's why it's so thrilling to see her wear suits instead of skirts and engage in fabulous queer affairs in this biography of the infamous 19th century French writer.

Maurice

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Not me recommending another period drama staple (Hugh Grant) in an LGBTQ+ romance! You can watch Sense and Sensibility any day. It was rare, both when E.M. Forster's book was published in 1971 and when James Ivory directed the film in 1987, that stories about gay men had a happy ending—so it's important as well as a swoon-worthy escape.

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