What Is This Sudden Obsession With Historical Accuracy on Television?

Everywhere you look there seems to be an obsession with historical accuracy. Fans, viewers, and TV critics alike are jumping on the bandwagon chastising TV shows for their inaccuracy. Frankly, this is astounding. Since when has television ever been about historical accuracy? The purpose of television is first and foremost to entertain. It is not concerned about accuracy because of one simple truth: it doesn’t need to be.

We don’t watch medical dramas and legal shows because they accurately depict what happens in an emergency room or a court room. We certainly do not watch romantic comedies because they accurately reflect how people interact on a date. And we do not watch period-piece dramas because they accurately reflect what really happened in that era.

Yet more and more online commentary and viewer critiques claim they seek “historical accuracy.” I say that is absurd. Television shows are stories seen through the lens of a writer, director, producer and all those who bring the show to life. They will throw in nods to the time period they are looking to reflect – sometimes that is clothing, hairstyles, landscape, settings, and other accouterments. But frequently creative license is employed in order to keep the story tightly focused on the characters introduced. Television is about characters. Shows live and die on whether the characters (and the actors who portray them) resonate with the audience. We rarely notice or even care that the character is wearing clothing that is 10-20 years too early for the time period, or if the hair styles are too modern – or better yet, that the characters look a lot cleaner than they would have been in that era.

So why this sudden demand for “historical accuracy”? Is it really necessary for shows like MAD MEN, DOWNTON ABBEY, THE HOUR, THE PLAYBOY CLUB, PAN AM, or AMC’s newcomer HELL ON WHEELS to be confined by the expectation that they be absolutely accurate to the last detail. Does it really matter? Whenever I hear talk about MAD MEN, it is less about whether it is accurate as to the social conventions and historical facts than about the mesmerizing characters of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Similarly, fans of DOWNTON ABBEY do not focus on the plausibility of whether everything that is going on in that world is factually and historically accurate. No, they are obsessed with the interactions of the Granthams and Crawleys and the fascinating lives of their household staff. And that is how it should be.

History is but a colorful backdrop to tell a story. It provides a place and a setting in which the characters come together and interact. Television shows are not supposed to be documentaries. Imagine how dry and unengaging that would be if they were. What we want to see instead is the menagerie of characters and the riveting situations they find themselves in. We want to see what they do. It is never about whether they would actually talk the way they do, sit and stand a certain way, wear a certain color, or have more jewelry than would have been available in the era. Those things are just the “window dressing.” Similarly, it is unnecessary to focus on the nuanced details of whether or not there would have been more or less racial diversity, less education, more sickness or less creature-comforts. In the end, such attention to detail is only that a “detail.” It is not the substance of the story. If the story is about a family fighting to maintain is rank in a society crumbling around them, then that’s where our attention is. If the story is about a news station fighting for the right to broadcast real news and not manufactured news, then we should be watching for that. And if a show is about the fates of a group of rag-tag survivors post-Civil War, then we should not care whether not the ethnic diversity is disproportionate to the time period – we should only be interested in whether our hero survives to get his revenge and how the people around him become more and more important as their lives entangle.

The demand for historical accuracy is only a sign that the viewer is less interested in the show than they are in the details. That’s the viewer’s problem. They brought their own expectations and demands to a show that has a different story to tell. Television is a “check your baggage at the door” kind of experience. You cannot seek to impose your vision of what a show should be on what it actually is. If you are the kind of viewer or critical looking for historical accuracy, then you should probably be watching the History Channel – and not BBC, AMC or ABC where the shows are story-driven and character-driven.

God-forbid that popular shows like NCIS, THE MENTALIST or even THE GOOD WIFE be held to the standard where they had to be factually accurate. It just isn’t possible. Creative license is necessary to create the world these shows seek to portray. We don’t want to see how dull-and-lifeless real life is and how slow the legal field is or how technologically unadvanced the medical profession actually is – instead, we want to be invited into fictional worlds where miraculous technology exists, doctors and lawyers perform astounding feats on a regular basis with little prep time, and a layman can connive to be a part of an investigative team where he frequently convinces them to break the very laws they are to uphold. In essence, we don’t expect that these shows be accurate – in fact, we don’t want them to be. We only want them to entertain us.

So before deriding a TV show for its lack of “historical accuracy,” you may want to do a reality-check on yourself: are you watching a documentary or a TV show? If it is not a documentary, then such an expectation is completely unrealistic. You forgot the one critical point: you’re watching a television show. It is supposed to be inaccurate. The better question to ask is: is it entertaining? If you cannot answer that question affirmatively, then move along and let the rest of us enjoy it. Just because you forgot to check your “baggage” at the door, doesn’t mean the rest of us are so encumbered.

Television is supposed to introduce us to wondrous worlds where characters and stories come to life and take us on a journey. So let go of your expectations and join the ride. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at Tiffany_Vogt_2000@yahoo.com or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

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