A History Lover's Lament: TV Show fuckups

TV writers from NBC to ABC to AMC to Netflix gather in a small conference room awash in shades of calming blue. Some are seated. Most are standing shifting from one foot to another. Silence settles over the group as I stand up. A wry chuckle escapes my lips. My gaze shifts to the pack of Newport 100s in my hand. Ripping the plastic off, I open the pack and slide out one cigarette while looking at them. My unblinking, piercing stare unnerves them. The corners of my mouth flick upward. I like it. I drink in their nervousness.

I take a long drag from my cigarette reflexively closing my eyes. I gently push out the nicotine air. My eyes open once most of the smoke starts to dissipate. Now is the time I open my mouth to say why I gathered them. Why they are standing here?

If you’re not going to study fucking history, don’t write it.

After finishing Season 2 of Anne With an E, I felt annoyed. I took to Twitter and wrote the following tweet:

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My main grievance was the modernization of a historical show. I acknowledge that the show is a work of fiction. However, it draws from history and a very real place: Prince Edward Island, specifically in the 1900s. The first season was solid. The writers utilized our expansive knowledge of the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to flesh out Anne Shirley. While her fortunes may have changed, at the heart, she was a 13 year old orphan who had a traumatic childhood. That does not simply go away. A moment conjures up painful memories of abuse in the orphanage at the hands of the other children and foster parents.

Anne is not the only character explored with greater depth. Over the course of Season 1 and Season 2, the show spends considerable time fleshing out brother-sister duo Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Theirs is a story of familial grief, resilience, and hopes deferred. Who could they have been had their older brother Michael not died? His death was a tremendous impact that obliterated their family.

It is through Anne’s experience that the lens expands to touch on the social mores of 1900s rural Canada. Avonlea, for all its homespun, lighthearted glory, is a close-minded, deeply conservative town. Despite being a child, Anne is regarded as defective, troublesome, and broken. From Marilla’s childhood friend Rachel Lynde to the good minister, they are all too eager to believe the worst of her and to shun her. Much of the show consists of Anne having to prove herself worthy, in some way, to this town.

Taking all of the Season 1 groundwork into consideration, the show (and its writers) blow all of that up in Season 2. On the pillars of race and sexuality, the show makes a bungled foray into historical territory that exists on the margins. This is tackled through the introduction of Sebastian (aka Bash), a Trinidadian man, Cole, an artistic Avonlea farm boy, and Josephine Barry, a wealthy relative of the Barry family.

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In the case of Bash, the show relied on obvious racial discomfort and shock of seeing a black man and overt racism. It is then we learn, interestingly, that black people do live in an area called "The Bog." The Bog is referred derisively by white characters as a place for “criminals and the wretches of society.” Yet, that is not what Bash experiences. In this space, Bash finds rest from the white gaze and enjoys kinship. Season 1 demonstrated that Anne, a white female orphan had to prove herself over and over to these judgmental townies that, despite what they thought, she was good. Bash does not follow a similar trajectory. He is, more or less, accepted.

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Then there is Cole who is relentlessly bullied by an asshole kid Billy and often scolded by his teacher, Mr. Phillips, who struggles with being gay as well. On the show, being gay is demonstrated as being artistic and a preference for hanging with the girls instead of the boys. When he reveals his sexuality to Anne, he finds acceptance. When his world comes crashing down and everything ripped away from him, he finds a solution. He gets his happy ending no matter how implausible.

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Josephine Barry, given what little we know of her financial background other than “well off,” likely lives a life slightly truer to history. With money, she can go to Paris and have extravagant parties. Essentially, live her life out loud. Yet, it circles back to whether or not she would have been ostracized by her family, specifically her relatives in provincial Avonlea.

All of these questions swirl around these characters and yet none tackled to any sufficient degree. This show did not shy away from showing the harsher aspects of life in regards to Anne. However, when they introduce characters of color and queer people, suddenly, their experience is different, better. Warm and inviting. A modern corrective on a likely abysmal but historical experience. Frankly, these characters are written as white, male characters where bad things happen to them but they still win out in the end. Historically, when you exist on the margins, a true happy ending was the exception not the rule.

Yet, when I pull back the curtain, the treatment of history among TV shows is wanting. As a student of history, I cannot suspend my disbelief and gloss over historical experiences. From the practically nonexistent sexism and racism toward Betsy, a black female sex worker in Damnation to the problematic, sloppy Season 2 of Underground, television writers have demonstrated they take too much creative license and paint history with a modern lens. Try as I might I still give them a chance.

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Only one show succeeded in creating a nuanced take on history and that’s AMC’s Hell on Wheels. It is a masterful study of an interesting time in America’s history beginning soon after the Civil War. This show depicted the realities of life not only in that time but in general. A perfect happy ending is rare but you can still find a good ending. I did not watch the show much after its second season. I tuned out when the protagonist made a choice that was far afield of his character. I could not believe everything that resulted from that decision. That colossal mistake aside, the show kept me captivated. Underground started out on that trajectory and then bungled the play in the second season. I stuck with it but left underwhelmed.