The 15 Best TV Period Dramas Ever – Yes, Including Bridgerton
Jane Austen’s novels have been adapted countless times, but the 2009 Emma miniseries stands out for its spot-on depiction of the book’s meddling and naive (but well-meaning) heroine. Romola Garai is dazzling as Emma Woodhouse. Not only does she capture the character’s obliviousness to just how damaging her matchmaking can be for her friends, but she also nails Emma’s innocence.
Ultimately, Emma is a coming-of-age tale, and that’s something this miniseries understands better than any other adaptation. But perhaps its greatest strength lies in the natural chemistry that exists between Garai and Jonny Lee Miller’s Mr. Knightley. Their loaded banter elevates the miniseries from good to superb and makes it an essential part of any best-of-the-genre list.
The Great has only been around for one season so far, but it has already established itself as a hilariously disruptive force in the world of period dramas. For starters, no one will ever call this mostly true story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power stuffy. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.
Whether Elle Fanning’s Catherine is learning how to be even more cutthroat than her dim and cruel husband, Peter (played with an unrestrained glee by Nicholas Hoult), or embracing her sexual awakening courtesy of her lover (who in a delightful twist is “gifted” to her by Peter), her time at court is at once intense, enlightening, and sharply funny. And the best part is this show is just getting started.
Apple TV+ has splashier shows than Dickinson, but I would argue that none are better. Just like Bridgerton, the series is full of modern touches. In fact, it delights in its anachronisms, from the slang the characters use to their raucous dance parties. But the series, which is inspired by the life of poet Emily Dickinson, never becomes gimmicky.
Ultimately, this is the story of a woman of immense talent who is forced to hide both her art and her true self from the world. Emily’s story is one of yearning that viewers know ends in tragedy – the poet eventually lives a reclusive life and never sees her poetry appreciated in her own time. But still the series finds hope in Emily’s defiance of societal conventions and in the beauty of her boundless imagination.
Upstairs, Downstairs is basically Downton Abbey, but it was created in the ’70s. The show follows the decline of Britain’s aristocracy through the lens of the Bellamy family and their servants. Although the series looks a little dated to modern ideas, its influence on period dramas can’t be overstated, and for that reason it deserves the No. 12 spot on this list.
Based on the real-life story of Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack is anchored by a towering performance from Suranne Jones. Over the course of the first season, Anne swaggers around the small town of West Yorkshire in search of a wife, while also scandalizing the community by daring to manage her family’s finances. Ultimately, she finds love with the timid Ann Walker, and in the process, the series becomes an epic love story about defying conventions.
Gentleman Jack is a sexy, bold series that completely flips the traditional period-drama narrative on its head. This is a show about a woman in want of a wife, and trust me, no one would ever dare get in Anne’s way.
The influence of England’s Victorian era on everything from romance novels to Christmas can’t be overstated. However, the young Queen Victoria is often thought of in the abstract. Victoria changes all of that by giving her a voice and a richly drawn personal life.
Like the real Victoria, actress Jenna Coleman is small in stature, but she carries herself with a distinctly royal air whether she’s falling for the dashing Prince Albert or navigating a burgeoning revolution. In terms of royal-based period dramas, this series is by far one of the best, and that’s thanks in large part to the way it balances court intrigue with matters of the heart.
Anne With an E
The Netflix series Anne With an E updates Lucy Maud Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables story for a modern generation. Over the course of three seasons, the series tackles subjects like racism, feminism, and PTSD – none of which are openly discussed in the books on which the series is based. But Anne With an E‘s greatest strength is actually its willingness to not be beholden to the text.
As a result, viewers get to see Anne Shirley in an entirely new light. Yes, she’s still an orphan brimming with optimism who is taken in by adult siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, but the added darkness only makes her sunny outlook on life all the more potent.
Bridgerton is getting plenty of attention for its brazen sexiness, but Poldark was steaming up Sunday nights on PBS long before the Netflix series came along. Set in the late 1700s, the series follows Captain Ross Poldark as he returns to Cornwall after the Revolutionary War to find his father is dead, the woman he loves married his cousin, and his family’s fortunes have all but dried up.
This leads to plenty of brooding on the part of Ross, but Poldark‘s greatest asset isn’t its protagonist but rather the fierce Demelza Carne. Demelza begins the series as Ross’s maid, but the sizzling chemistry between them soon becomes too much to resist, leading to a complex love story about two flawed people that plays out over five dramatic seasons of quality television.
Netflix presented the world with Bridgerton on Christmas Day, and honestly, we couldn’t have asked for a better present. The series about the Bridgerton and Featherington families navigating the social minefield that is London’s ton is inclusive, stylish, and romantic. It’s also fearless when it comes to serving up intimate sex scenes, which is still a rarity in the world of period dramas.
This bright and addictive series has captured imaginations the world over and sparked a renewed interest in the period-drama genre – not bad for a show that’s just getting started.
Netflix’s The Crown is the most contemporary series on this list, but it brings the recent past to life so vividly, it absolutely must be included. Whether you’re in awe of Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign or still obsessed with Diana, this peek behind the curtain at the Windsors is always entertaining, with production values that are, quite frankly, drool-worthy. Add in a revolving door of gifted cast members playing the royals through every stage of life, and it’s impossible not to bow down to The Crown.
Bridgerton may have the bigger budget, but Sanditon was telling inclusive, sexy stories about a young woman coming of age a full year before Daphne Bridgerton made her society debut. Based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name, Sanditon takes place at a seaside resort town where Charlotte Haywood gets her first taste of the real world, which includes dealing with scheming step-siblings reenacting Cruel Intentions in the Regency era, falling for the ridiculously hot Mr. Sidney Parker, and helping her friend defy her guardian’s wishes and connect with the man she loves.
ITV and Masterpiece inexplicably canceled Sanditon after one season, but its passionate fanbase is still hoping someone will save this daring period drama, which speaks to just how impactful Charlotte’s story is despite it only lasting eight episodes.
Call the Midwife
For nine seasons, Call the Midwife has quietly established itself as one of the most important shows on television by tackling issues relating to women’s health, poverty, and race head on. Set in London’s East End in the 1950s, the series follows the lives of a group of nuns and midwives who have dedicated themselves to helping the people in their community in any way they can.
Over the years, the cast has seen numerous new additions and exits, but the warm heart of the series never wavers. Somehow Call the Midwife has found a way to be hard-hitting without compromising the humanity of its characters or giving up on the idea that people are basically good. In short, it is a triumph, and it’s easily one of the greatest shows, period or otherwise, to ever grace our screens.
Pride and Prejudice (1995)
In 1995, Colin Firth‘s Mr. Darcy walked out of a pond soaking wet and changed period dramas forever. The Pride and Prejudice miniseries’s influence on the genre as a whole can’t be overstated. By daring to add flourishes to Austen’s beloved text, the series paved the way for future adaptations to toss out the rulebook, and that’s something every fan of Austen and good costume dramas should be eternally grateful for.
Aye, Sassenach, Outlander‘s distinctive mix of fantasy and historical drama is too delicious to resist. Jamie and Claire Fraser’s love story is the very definition of epic. Nothing can keep these two apart – not war, not trauma, and not even time itself. As they move through some of the most momentous moments in history, one thing always remains the same: they can’t get enough of each other. Which is good news for the legion of fans who in turn can’t get enough of their intense and sexy scenes.
Jamie and Claire just keep on moving the needle forward in terms of the level of hotness the usually chaste period-drama genre can get away with, and the show deserves all of the accolades for being unapologetic about the fact that its main characters can’t keep their hands off of each other at any stage of life.
What else could be No. 1? When Downton Abbey premiered in 2010, it took the world by storm, and obsessing over the lives of the Crawley family and their servants became a way of life for some fans.
The series notably takes advantage of the fact that it’s set during a time when the British aristocracy was waning. As a result, the Crawleys are often making desperate moves to hold on to their family estate, but behind the scenes, many members of the household – both upstairs and down – are flirting with modernity. From joining the women’s movement to navigating the perils of practicing safe sex in the early 20th century, the characters are always moving forward, despite the older generation’s desire for things to stay the same.
Ultimately, Downton Abbey excels at balancing classic period-drama tropes with the style and substance of prestige TV. The end result is a show that nabbed Emmys, captured the zeitgeist, and led to a successful film, all while proving to Hollywood that there’s no reason a show can’t be soapy, romantic, and utterly deserving of the same level of accolades as something as dark and serious as Breaking Bad.
Downton Abbey‘s success broke boundaries for period dramas and paved the way for shows like Bridgerton, Sanditon, and Gentleman Jack to keep pushing the genre forward in terms of inclusivity and content. I shudder to imagine what might have happened had the Crawleys never elbowed their way past Hollywood’s gatekeepers. Thankfully, absolutely no one can stand in the way of the Dowager Countess – or the march of period-drama progress.
Period dramas are having a moment right now, and it’s all thanks to Netflix’s Bridgerton. The big-budget series about the Bridgerton family navigating London’s society and the marriage market is a delicious drama full of promenading, classic pop covers, and instantly iconic declarations of love (“I burn for you” should go down in the history books as one of TV’s all-time great romantic lines). It also has an inclusive cast, sex scenes that would make Jane Austen faint, and the zippy dialogue fans have come to expect from a Shondaland show. But Bridgerton is far from the first series to send period-drama fans into a frenzy. The genre has been around for quite some time, and there are plenty of superb shows that paved the way for Bridgerton‘s progressive society debut.
Period dramas have been pushing the bounds of what’s acceptable in a story set in Victorian London, the Regency era, and beyond for decades now. The best of the genre effortlessly melds romance with social commentary and unforgettable heroines – simultaneously sweeping viewers off their feet and challenging their ideas about the past. Ultimately, Bridgerton is the product of a long line of Masterpiece theater productions and BBC shows that were unafraid to challenge the status quo. But how does the Netflix series stack up to the shows that came before it? Read on to find out where it lands on our list of the best period dramas ever.