Last Updated: December 6th
Many of us loathed history in school, but these shows on Netflix are working to make it more interesting than any textbook ever could. They’re doing it by adding a bit of drama, a lot of flair, tons of corsets and court intrigue, murder, machinations, and political power plays. These series focus on key figures and events of the past — revolutions, wars, royal marriages, and deadly plots — bringing them to life through impeccably acted scenes starring some of the biggest names in the industry. And no, just because each of these shows touches on a moment in history does not automatically mean they’re all British.
Here are the best historical TV shows on Netflix right now.
3 seasons, 30 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
At once intimate and sweeping, The Crown presents an inside view of the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II, played by Claire Foy, and the first few years of her reign. John Lithgow is featured as the indomitable Winston Churchill, struggling with the ignominy of age at the end of his career. Churchill’s support and mentorship of Elizabeth, despite his limitations, creates an important emotional center around which various historical events turn. Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband, Prince Phillip (Matt Smith), is also wonderfully explored; his role as consort is one that he by turns delights in and rebels against. The production spared no expense in painstakingly recreating the physical environments and rigid protocols that constrained and defined the royal family. This series will appeal to anyone who enjoys costume drama, but it is also a fascinating exploration of the post-WWII period and the development of a monarch who managed to maintain and even expand the popularity and stability of the British Monarchy against significant odds.
4 seasons, 38 episodes | IMDb: 8.1/10
I think we can all agree, Henry VIII was not the model of royalty anyone would aspire to, but as sh*tty as the historical figure was, his life made for a fascinating, sexually-charged, politically entrenched TV show. The Tudors took the British monarchy – a crusty, aloof ideal – and injected a dose of soap-opera juiciness to it all with Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing the king in question and a host of supporting cast members like Henry Cavill and Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer showing off their own chops. Henry was mercurial, easily-enraged, and led by the brain in his pants most of the time, which meant the series featured plenty of scantily-clad rendezvous and epic battle scenes along with the subtler political machinations that took place behind closed doors. It’s everything you could hope for in a period drama.
5 seasons, 30 episodes | IMDb: 8.8/10
A British import licensed in America exclusively by Netflix, Peaky Blinders is roughly the UK equivalent of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, taking place in the same time period and covering similar terrain. It’s got British gangsters, and while bootlegging and gambling are involved, so is the IRA, the Russian revolution, and the Italian mafia. Peaky has one thing that Boardwalk does not, however, and that’s the piercing, intense Cillian Murphy, who plays something akin to Prohibition-era Boyd Crowder. The show also features Tom Hardy as a phenomenal recurring character. It’s a short series, and it is addictive, violent, and intense as hell.
1 season, 7 episodes | IMDb: 8.4/10
Exec produced by Steven Soderbergh and written, directed, and created by Scott Frank, who wrote Logan and Out of Sight, Godless is equal parts a feminist Western and a show about fathers and sons. The series is set in the 1880s in the small mining town of La Belle, where nearly all of the town’s men have died in a mining accident. Enter Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), a charming gunslinger on the run from the mentor he double-crossed, Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), who — along with his crew out desperadoes — had already murdered everyone in another small town for harboring Goode. The series ultimately pits a town of mostly women against a brutal, merciless outlaw gang. Scoot McNairy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Sam Waterston play lawmen, but the standouts in Godless are Downton Abby‘s nearly unrecognizable shotgun wielding pioneer woman Michelle Dockery and Merritt Wever, a bisexual woman all out of f*cks to give. It’s a tremendously good series buoyed by beautiful cinematography, poetic language, a few great shoot-outs, and fine performances from the entire cast.
Medici: Masters of Florence
2 seasons, 24 episodes | IMDb: 7.9/10
This Italian-British drama carries some big names and an even heftier weight as it explores the Medici dynasty that shaped much of Florence in the 15th century. Dustin Hoffman plays Giovanni de’ Medici who’s mysteriously poisoned early in the series, making way for his son Cosimo (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) to take over the family banking business. Of course, the family serves as the bank for the Catholic Church and the Pope, so Cosimo is quickly thrust into a world of deceit, betrayal, murder, and machinations, one he navigates while trying to restore his name and continue his family’s legacy. Season two boasts another Game of Thrones veteran with Sean Bean playing Jacopo Pazzi, a rival banker who goes head-to-head with the Medici family and its charismatic leader, Lorenzo The Magnificent, some 20 years after the first season ends. There’s plenty of intrigue and power plays to keep non-history buffs interested here, but knowing how vital the Medici family was to the rise of Papal power and Rome itself should be enough to lure anyone with a love of the past.
North and South
1 season, 4 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
Richard Armitage stars in this BBC mini-series that serves as an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic love story. The series follows Margaret Hale, a young woman forced to move from sunny, Southern England to the harsh, industrial North when her father leaves the clergy. The Hales struggle to adapt to Northern ways, and Margaret soon finds herself at odds with the prominent Thornton family, who run the town’s cotton mill and treat their workers abysmally. While Margaret fights for better conditions for the poor, she battles an attraction to the head of the family, John Thornton (Armitage), that changes bother their lives and their views of the world. It’s a quintessential Victorian romance, but there are some bits about the industrial revolution (its pros and cons) thrown in for good measure.
American Crime Story
2 seasons, 19 episodes | IMDb: 8.5/10
Although the original trial took place 20 years ago, and even though anyone watching the series already knows the outcome, The People vs. O.J. Simpson somehow remains a tense, suspenseful watch. Buoyed by incredible performances (the season was nominated for over 20 Emmy Awards, winning 8), The People vs. O.J. Simpson recreates the events following the murder of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson and recasts them in the light of what we know now. In its second season, the shows moves focus to the assassination of design legend Gianni Versace by Andrew Cunanan. While not as strong as the amazing ensemble in season one, season two boasts memorable portrayals of conflicted, complex figures by Darren Criss, Penelope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, and (surprisingly) Ricky Martin. What both seasons have in common is a commitment to re-telling infamous parts of our history through a different lens.
TURN: Washington’s Spies
4 seasons, 40 episodes | IMDb: 8.1/10
Jamie Bell stars in this AMC period piece about the American Revolution and the unseen heroes behind it. The show follows events from 1776 to 1781, particularly the plot of the Culper Ring, an unlikely group of spies assembled by George Washington consisting of farmers and everyday men who would report British activity to the Patriots during England’s occupation during the height of the war. Bell plays Abraham Woodhull, a young farmer from Setauket, New York, who’s forced to betray his family and his ideas in order to help Washington’s troops fight the British. He’s joined by some key players in American history including Benjamin Tallmadge, Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, and John Andre. Though we know how things eventually turn out, watching these men and women risk their lives (by crafting clever schemes to ensure the success of their mission) is still thrilling enough to hook you for four seasons.
3 seasons, 30 episodes | IMDb: 7.9/10
After a series of civil wars in France in 1667, the young and powerful King Louis XIV decides to retreat from his residence in Paris and build the famed Palace of Versailles, an architectural feat that has since defined the opulence and wealth of the French monarchy. But this series seeks to show a different reason for Louis’ dogged-determination to build the most lavish royal residence in Europe. Over the course of two seasons, we see the king confine scheming royals, ones who dream of sparking a revolution, to the walls of Versailles where he manipulates them, forcing them to fight for his favor even as the rest of the country battles plague, poverty, and war with much of Europe.
4 season, 33 episodes | IMDb: 7.8/10
This Spanish period drama focuses on four young women whose lives are drastically changed when they’re employed by a modern telecommunications company that relocates to Madrid in 1928. The show follows the women as they navigate familial issues, societal pressures, and their attachments to each other while become working women, a notion practically unheard of during the time. It’s certainly feminist viewing as most of the series looks at the hardships that women faced when first entering the workforce, but there’s nuance here too, enough to make you genuinely care for these characters.