In the history of American television, with the exception of Westerns and war dramas, period dramas and comedies have been a rarity. Relatively few have been hits and very few are remembered. Indeed, unlike other genres, it is fairly easy to name the majority of the successful period pieces outside of Westerns and war dramas that have aired on American television from the late Forties to the Naughts: The Untouchables, The Waltons, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Crime Story, The Wonder Years, and That Seventies Show. It is then rather remarkable that the past several seasons have seen two shows set in the past that have become outright phenomena. In the United States Mad Men debuted in 2007 on AMC and became a breakout hit. Downton Abbey debuted on ITV in 2010 and became a hit there. It later debuted on PBS in the United States in early 2011 where it repeated its success. As might be expected with two hit television period pieces, others have followed suit.
Of course, period pieces have traditionally been more common on British television than American television, so it should come as no surprise that at least three of the recent hit period pieces in the United States come from British television. Downton Abbey originated on ITV in the United Kingdom. The Hour, centring on a British public affairs show on the BBC in the Fifties, originated on BBC Two and aired in the States in BBC America. Call the Midwife, the show centring on midwives in the Fifties, originated on BBC One. That having been said, the past several year have seen several home grown period pieces become hits on American television.
The vast majority number of period pieces on American television the past many years have aired on cable. Boardwalk Empire debuted on HBO in September 2010, before Downton Abbey even hit American shores, and proved to be a hit. The series is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the 1930's. The Starz series Magic City was perhaps not as successful as Boardwalk Empire, but did well enough to be given a second season. Debuting on Starz in 2012, it centres on a hotel in Miami in the Sixties. AMC boasts one other period piece besides Mad Men, the Western Hell on Wheels. Hell on Wheels debuted on the channel in 2011 and focuses on the building of the transcontinental railroad. Copper is BBC America's first original production and debuted on the channel in 2012. It centres on police officers in New York City in the 1860's. It proved to be their highest rated series ever besides Doctor Who.
Despite the popularity of period dramas on PBS and the various cable channels, the broadcast networks have not made much of an effort to capitalise on the new popularity of period pieces in the past few seasons. In the 2011-2012 season only two period pieces debuted on the broadcast networks. One of the two was the disastrous Playboy Club, set in the Chicago Playboy Club in the Sixties. The series crashed and burned in about a month, perhaps because of bad scripts and historical inaccuracies. It aired on NBC. The other was Pan Am, a show that focused on a crew working for that airline in the Sixties. ABC cancelled it after only one season. This season so far only one new period piece has debuted on the broadcast networks. Vegas is set in Las Vegas in the early Sixties and is essentially a highly fictionalised account of the real life Sheriff Ralph Lamb. Unlike both Playboy Club and Pan Am, it appears to be doing well in the ratings.
Vegas may not be the only period piece on the American broadcast networks for very long. NBC signed Downton Abbey creator Lord Julian Fellowes to create a show set in New York City in the late 1800's, The Gilded Age. Another period piece set to air on NBC is Crossbones, a pirate drama created by Luther creator Neil Cross. Set to air in the 2012-2013 season on NBC is Dracula, a series based on Bram Stoker's novel and set in the late 1800's. ABC also has period pieces in development, including Big Thunder (about a mining town during the Gold Rush), Finn & Sawyer (which features Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer as young men in New Orleans), and Highlanders (set in medieval Scotland with the Scots fighting off invading Vikings). Strangely enough, the one of the three older networks to actually have had success with a period piece (Vegas), CBS, does not seem to have any in the works at the moment.
While the American broadcast networks are giving period pieces another try, there are yet more British period pieces making the trip across the Pond. Ripper Street is set in Whitechapel, London following the Jack the Ripper murders. It debuted on the BBC in December 2012 and is set to debut on BBC America this month. Endeavour, a series set in the 1960's and featuring Inspector Morse when he was young, is set to air on ITV this year. The pilot aired on Masterpiece Mystery, so that the series itself will probably make its way across the Atlantic as well.
So far I have only talked about British and American productions, but the Canadians have also produced a hit period drama. Murdoch Mysteries debuted on CityTV in 2008 and proved to be quite successful. The series centres on detective William Murdoch in Toronto, Ontario in the 1890's. It has aired on PBS stations in the United States and it is available streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S. as well. It has developed a bit of a cult following in the United States.
Of course, the question is, "Why have period dramas proven popular on American television in the past few years?" At least one reason could be the simple fact that American television has always rushed to emulate success. In the 1955-1956 season when the Westerns Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp proved to be hits, the broadcast networks rushed to make Western. Quite naturally, when Mad Men proved to be a hit, one would expect other cable channels and the broadcast networks to emulate its success. Indeed, it must be noted that a suspicious number of recent period dramas have been set in the Sixties (Playboy Club, Pan Am, Magic City, Vegas). Downton Abbey appears to be having the same effect. While the broadcast networks are not rushing to make Edwardian dramas, it is notable that some of the shows in development are set in none too distant Victorian Era (Dracula) and one of them comes from Downton Abbey's creator himself (The Gilded Age).
Cable channels and the broadcast networks' rush to emulate success is only part of the answer, however, as it does not entirely explain the success of Mad Men, Murdoch Mysteries, and Downton Abbey. While much of their success is probably due to the fact that they are well acted and well written shows, I suspect that much of the reason for their success may go a bit deeper. Quite simply, the Naughts saw both the British and American economies collapse. In such times of turmoil it is typical for people to turn to what are called "comfort shows," which much like "comfort food" offers solace to individuals under stress. The phenomenon was observed in the United States following the 9/11 attacks, after which older television shows on the broadcast networks rose in the ratings.
While comfort shows are generally old favourites to which people turn in times of trouble (Bonanza and The Avengers are comfort shows for me), they can also be shows set in periods that people think of as simpler or, at least less troubled, times. Older people with fond memories of the Sixties might well tune into Mad Men to recapture a bit of what they may feel were happier times. Younger people may tune into Downton Abbey as a means of escape; for about an hour they can escape the hardships of the Teens and enter an Edwardian world that seems in some ways less stressful. Period dramas can then act as a comfort shows for many, giving them a chance to escape the present into a past which they may or may not actually have lived through.
Regardless, it would seem as if the current cycle towards period pieces is not going to end any time soon. Indeed, it would appear that it may just be getting started. With several period dramas still doing well in the ratings and with several more on the way, the Teens could be remembered for its cycle of period dramas in the way that the Fifties are for its cycle of Westerns or the Sixties for its cycle of spy shows.