Also written by Sarah Monnier.
Drop those primary sources, history buffs. It’s time for a Netflix break. If you crave a show to spark inspiration for your next research paper, look no further. Grab some ice cream or a tub of popcorn. From documentaries to dramas, we’ve got you covered when it comes to history-themed anything.
Pick and choose your favorite point in history—one of these 10 history TV shows covers it.
1. The Crown
If you’re looking to avoid doing the reading for part of your course on the British Empire, you’ll love this series. The show chronicles Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne and her reign beginning in the 1940s in a more entertaining way than your typical textbook. “The Crown was a great blend of Elizabeth’s early personal and professional life,” said Indiana University junior Emily Dwight. “While there were some historical inaccuracies for the most part it really captured her early life well. Also it’s just a good and entertaining story that you get hooked into after the first episode.” If you weren’t already aware Winston Churchill had jerk-ish tendencies, you’ll figure it out pretty quick.
2. Mad Men
If you haven’t seen Mad Men yet, you might be hitting the books a little too hard. Beef up your history TV show resume with this AMC hit. It follows the advertising men (and women!) of the 1960s, and honestly about one episode in you’ll start to wonder why no one on this show has died of alcohol poisoning. Fans of that glamorous 60s aesthetic will eagerly hit “next episode” again and again. “I like to see how advertising used to be and how it has changed since the time period of the show,” said IU senior Jaron Kaufman. Also John Hamm, hot damn.
3. Turn: Washington’s Spies
Even the title itself sounds exciting. If you (like everyone else) can’t stop listening to Hamilton, this AMC take on the Revolutionary War might be your next obsession. The story revolves around a young farmer living on Long Island, torn between loyalty to his Tory upbringing and his childhood friends who joined the Patriot cause. From a love affair to murders, if you love history themed anything plus a good old fashioned spy plot, this history drama will make you see something you normally just read about in history books in a whole new way.
This Oscar-winning movie follows The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team, the oldest continuously operating investigative journalism unit in the United States. Its plot isn’t exactly what you’d call period drama. It revolves around the Boston sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church that happened in 2002. Still, the dramatization of these real life events is worth watching. This film even features a star-studded cast with very recognizable names such as Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. “It was fun to see The Incredible Hulk as an investigative journalist,” said Kaufman. If you liked All the King’s Men, add this to your list for the next time you want a journalism-based drama.
5. The Sixties
Want to study for your class on the sixties in the U.S. with minimal effort? Thanks to Tom Hanks and CNN, you can do just that in easy 40-minute episodes. From the Vietnam War and the assassination of JFK to the British Invasion, this miniseries breaks down one of the most pivotal decades in United States history. Scarf down a bag of Cheetos while learning everything you need to know for your next midterm. Who said cramming meant staying away from Netflix?
6. Peaky Blinders
Every history enthusiast out there might already know about the real life gang that inspires this story. This British crime show follows the operations of this gang in the aftermath of World War I. There’s also the added bonus of a whole collection of interesting accents to keep you entertained. For all the global war history experts out there, sheds light on the interwar period in Birmingham, England. If that still doesn’t convince you to put down your textbooks tonight, this drama involves murders, secrets and cliffhangers galore. Need I say more?
7. The Tudors
Most people probably know the story of King Henry VIII, the overweight king who left the Catholic Church so he could kill off his wives in search a younger, son-bearing replacement. That’s basically the premise of The Tudors, only it replaced all the original players with hotter versions of themselves. Plus, there’s just something about those costumes that will keep you glued to your screen. “l love period dramas,” said Dwight. “This one is much less realistic but really entertaining and the men are just plain hot.” Make it a fun game by keeping track of all the historical inaccuracies while enjoying some eye candy and good old-fashioned drama.
8. Anna Karenina
Recognize this as the name of Leo Tolstoy’s famous work? Filled with romantic entanglement and controversy, this reimagining of Tolstoy’s novel is a nice alternative if you don’t feel like doing 864 pages of unassigned reading. Starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law, this story basically focuses on the titular character’s affair with Count Vronsky and what happens as a result. “I thought the story was very compelling,” said IU senior Fola Alade. Even cooler? History buffs will love that this romance comes with a nice splash of Russian culture, ranging from the feudal system to the Russian Orthodox Church.
9. Marco Polo
Feel free to fight me on this, but anything chronicling the Mongol Empire is already more entertaining than the hundreds of shows looking at the British Empire. Again, it helps that the star of this show—Marco Polo himself—is a real cutie. This Netflix history show first starts with Marco Polo taken as Kublai Khan’s prisoner, and goes on to have exciting plot lines such as an assassination attempt or power struggles. Although this show was sadly canceled after two seasons, it offers a nice change of pace from the usual litany of British-themed anything.
10. Medici: Masters of Florence
Even if you’re not interested in this period of history whatsoever, Richard Madden is in this. That’s enough for me. The story revolves his character, Cosimo, head of the Medici family, who has just inherited the Bank of Medici after his father’s mysterious death. “Medici was actually unreal, like maybe one of the greatest shows Netflix has created,” said Dwight. “It has a great parallel storyline, and the actors are phenomenal.” Bonus—this show features several seriously gorgeous Italian locations, such as Bracciano Castle. You can totally pretend you’re living in the same era as the Medicis as you frantically binge every episode Netflix has to offer.
Keep Reading for 10 More Historical Shows on Netflix You Need to Watch
Written by Rosie Forster.
11. Alias Grace
Grace Marks: murderess. Inspired by real life Canadian prisoner Grace Marks, Alias Grace received the Netflix mini-series treatment in 2017. Originally a novel by Margaret Atwood, the story follows Dr. Simon Jordan as he tries to uncover the secret behind Grace’s infamous crime. Filled with intrigue, suspense and a surprising amount of gore, Alias Grace tries to get to the bottom of this true unsolved mystery. Did Grace really do it? You’ll need to watch to find out.
12. The Young Victoria
Queen Victoria (Vicky to her friends) made an incredible impact on the world as we know it. This 2009 film stars Emily Blunt and dramatizes Victoria and Albert’s relationship. This film steers itself away from being a traditional period drama—while the costumes are impeccable, the cast and crew wanted the story itself to be as realistic as possible rather than jumping between important events in Victoria’s life. If you want to be the next Meghan Markle, then take notes when you watch this movie on how to embody royalty as well as Queen Vicky.
Based on the true crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, Mindhunter stars Broadway legend Johnathan Groff as FBI agent Holden Ford and focuses on serial killers in the late 1970s. The show focuses on interviewing serial killers and trying to uncover what in their psyches would lead them to murder. The killers in the show are based on real convicted criminals, and the interviews conducted while they were imprisoned formed the basis of some of the show’s dialogue. Get inside the mind of a killer from the comfort of your dorm room bed (and pray your roommate doesn’t try to kill you in the middle of the night).
If you feel sick of watching crusty white people in fancy outfits hold champagne and talk about how hard life is, you definitely aren’t the only one. 2017 historical film Mudbound features Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke and Mary J. Blige focusing on racial prejudice in Mississippi in the World War II era. The film follows two families, one white and one black, as they deal with very different sets of problems. This film earned four recent Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Song. Rachel Morrison was the first woman ever to get nominated for Best Cinematography. This movie both reflects history and made history, all in one.
I might have to make a disclaimer here: you don’t watch Reign for the historical accuracy, you watch it for the sheer drama of it all. Follow Mary Queen of Scots as she tries to survive in her world. There are hunky princes, boho-chic princess dresses, and Nostradamus’ prophecies constantly coming to life. Say what you will about the lack of historical integrity—this show knows how to deliver plot twists and turns that’ll keep you wanting more, even after you’ve finished every single episode. “It knows it’s a bad show, but the production quality is really high. It’s set in the context of a world dominated by men, but the women are so badass,” UCLA sophomore Emily Stern said.
16. Morocco (Love in Times of War)
This show proves that you don’t need to make TV in English for it to be riveting. Set in 1921, the story follows a groups of nurse trainees who travel from Madrid to (you guessed it) Morocco, opening a hospital in Melilla for Rif War soldiers. The Rif War, a war between Spanish colonialists and the Amazigh people of Morocco, lasted for five years and this show places the nurses right in the middle of it. Even though there’s a war going on, they still have time for relationship drama, which adds an extra element of tension.
17. The People vs. OJ Simpson
College-aged kids right now might not remember the actual event of the trial of OJ Simpson, which occurred in 1994, but they can watch it like it’s happening right now thanks to Netflix. The first season of American Crime Story, this series delves into the heartbreaking details of the case. The mini-series is unflinching and accurate, with stellar performances by Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ himself, and David Schwimmer as Simpson’s lawyer, Robert Kardashian. That’s right guys: Ross Geller is the original Kardashian.
GLOW explores the 1980s phenomenon of the same name (which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). Starring Alison Brie as anti-heroine Ruth Wilder, this darkly funny show has been nominated for plenty of accolades. Brie herself received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal, but the insanely talented ensemble cast provides the real power of this show. You’ll root for the quirky mix of lady wrestlers through thick and thin.
19. Ripper Street
Before you rip your next midterm apart, think about the original ripper (I’m obviously talking about serial murderer Jack the Ripper). Ripper Street begins in 1889, six months after the last murder by Jack the Ripper, in a London where chaos reigns supreme. The plot follows London cops as they try to nail a criminal whose identity has remained shrouded in mystery. If you want to see the seedy underbelly of Victorian era London, this show won’t hold back. It’ll be so suspenseful that you’ll want to rip your hair out (but only your hair, not the throats of defenseless young women).
20. My Only Love Song
Stars playing stars? Check. Romance and relationship drama? Check. Time-traveling van? Check. Pop singing sensation Soo-Jung accidentally travels back to 6th century Goguryeo (one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea). She meets the money-hungry On-dal, who luckily has a soft spot for helpless people and takes her in. From there, she embarks on a wild and crazy journey. The plot seems so outrageously nonsensical, but it’s based on historical folklore. Combined with the style of a rom-com, this TV show will keep your eyes glued to the screen.
**Updated on February 9, 2018 to include 10 more shows by Rosie Forster.