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Time travel can be tricky

Historical dramas don't get much attention when it comes to awards, but when the past is presented just right, it can create a resonant sense of the present and the future.

May 27, 2009|Randee Dawn

Abrief word of advice: When approaching Michael Hirst -- the creator, writer and executive producer of Showtime's "The Tudors," avoid asking when Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays King Henry VIII, is going to get fat.

"I have a beef with people who say he should be fat or otherwise it's inauthentic," Hirst says. "It's drama. The criteria people use to judge historical drama is completely wrong. I don't think pretending that it's accurate -- that Henry looks like that famous painting -- gets you any closer to the truth."

There are a lot of contemporary dramas on network television, but for the handful of series that attempt dramatic historical readings (for various reasons, historical comedies are rare), the challenges are exponential. Putting one together requires show runners and staff to juggle additional balls -- including historical accuracy, unintended ironies, language, costumes, locations and even hairstyles, to tell their stories. And each show has its own twists in their tales.

ABC's "Lost" didn't start out in the past, but it's ended up there. The show's non-linear style of storytelling has consistently dazzled fans since nearly Episode 1, but has recently developed into something that, according to executive producer Carlton Cuse, "is a full-on time travel show."

Much of this season has taken place in 1977, which presents its own challenges. But having relied on numerous flashbacks to illuminate the stranded strangers' lives over prior seasons, Cuse and co-executive producer Damon Lindelof realized they'd written themselves into a corner.

"If you were to look at Andy Sipowicz on 'NYPD Blue' and list every horrible thing that happened to him over the run of that show, it's astounding -- but you believe it," Cuse says. "If you're moving forward narratively, you're not focused on what happened, only on what is happening. But when you flash back, the audience is contextualizing everything.

"That was one of the big reasons we pushed to announce an ending to our show three years out -- so we wouldn't be trapped by some of the perils that occur when you're telling past stories contextually through flashbacks," he adds.

CBS' "Cold Case" spends about 30% to 40% of each show on backward glances that explain the old, unsolved case being investigated in the present day. Writing those scenes provides them the ability to "visit a different world each week," says Greg Plageman, who is co-executive producer with Jennifer Johnson.

On "Case," scripts tend to weave the time period directly into the crime being investigated -- say, when a 6-pound 1960s rotary phone turns out to have been the murder weapon. Says Johnson, "We try to make these murders very specific to the time and the world that they're in, so they couldn't just happen at any time."

Sometimes Los Angeles, where "Cold" is shot, just doesn't historically work for Philadelphia, where the show is set. "It's L.A., and there's not a lot of old architecture here," Plageman says. "So any time we go too deep into period, we're always a little hamstrung. Sometimes you have to do a tight shot to avoid that California stucco."

Props and locations aside, another tricky element is language.

"We have characters talk in contemporary, colloquial fashion," "Lost" producer Cuse says. "It would be too much of a contrivance to have the characters suddenly try to use 'groovy' in a sentence. The cringe factor outweighs the authenticity."

America in the 20th century, however, is somewhat less of a challenge than England in the 16th. Nevertheless, Hirst says, "There is more verbatim language in 'The Tudors' than in any other historical program I've ever seen. When I find something that people actually said, I smooth it out a little bit so it's not alienating, but it does have a rhythm which is not contemporary."

Matt Weiner, who deals with a more contemporary story line as executive producer and creator of AMC's "Mad Men," says being conscious of his audience -- which knows how the 1960s turned out -- makes him sensitive to more than just language.

"There's a risk of irony that you get from doing a historical drama where everyone knows the ending," he says. "The challenge for me is to delve into these things and show the reality of them, and, hopefully, it will have some resonance in what we're doing now. That way it doesn't feel like we're going back with a ridiculous sense of superiority."

Still, even with all of that emphasis on detail and period and language, Emmy voters can be fickle when choosing what kind of historical dramas to honor.

"Mad Men" won the best drama Emmy in 2008, and HBO's "John Adams" all but swept last year's miniseries awards -- but shows such as the futuristic "Battlestar Gallactica" or "The Tudors" rarely see anything more than technical awards. "Cold Case" and "Lost" are seen as genre shows more than period pieces and get ignored for that.

Still, awards or not, when the past is presented just right, story arcs can create a deeper, more resonant sense of the present and the future.

"History is cyclical," Weiner says. "What's supposed to ground ['Mad Men'] is that people are supposed to recognize themselves and their lives in what is timeless. I feel confident that these are three-dimensional characters, and their behavior lives outside the newspaper."

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