Now that the final season of Versailles has been added to the streaming Network, you’ve probably binge-watched it the first weekend. So, you’re probably now looking for another of the best historical drama series to marathon.
And if you haven’t watched the third season of Versaille… whyever not?
Whether you call them historical dramas or period dramas, the fact is that history has so much to teach us. Along with understanding our origins and why the world is the way it is today, there’s another important lesson. And that’s the fact that our ancestors were just as clueless as we are today.
Whether you’re watching a series about the king of France or some medieval merchant, you’ll discover that emotions ran high and angst prevailed. Or, at least that’s what the writers want you to think.
How We Picked the Best Historical Drama Series on Netflix
Netflix removed it’s rating scale back in 2017 and replaced it with a thumbs up or down. That may make it difficult to decide what’s worth your time and what isn’t. It’s particularly important because that whatever lemon you started will stick to your “Continue Watching” queue for the next seven months.
So, how did we decide which of the best historical drama series are worth watching?
We watched them. We also read reviews from professional critics and audiences alike. We looked at production values, story structure, and acting. Most importantly, we kept an eye out for great costumes and gorgeous sets.
Finally, as history buffs, we’ve tried to do some digging and find out just how accurate the best historical dramas series on Netflix really were.
Some, we admit, we’ve seen quite a few times. So, you know they’re great binge fodder. But note that we didn’t list them in any particular order.
The Best Historical Drama Series on Netflix Right Now
Our top selections focus on historical dramas about real-life figures of note from the past. We limited our choices in the most part to series that opened before 1960.
Since we just got its third and final season, we’re starting out our list of the best historical drama series with Versailles. The series documents the early years of the reign of Louis XIV of France, roughly covering the years 1667 to 1685 AD.
Call it sex, drugs, and really loud chamber music.
What’s fascinating about this 30-episode jaunt through the past isn’t the liberties taken by the scriptwriters. In fact, the most surprising thing about it is how much of it is mostly accurate.
George Blagden stars and does a superlative job. He manages to walk the tight rope and maintain a balance between keeping Louis sympathetic and revealing his calculating nature. At times, the story wants us to love Louis. It even wants us to feel a bit sorry for him. Blagden pulls it off.
The characters that really steal the show, however, is the trio of Princess Elisabeth Charlotte (Princess Palatine), Louis’s brother Prince Phillipe, and Phillipe’s lover, the Chevalier de Lorraine. Their long-lasting love triangle is pure fun and makes for great television.
Jessica Clark as Princess Palatine is one of Versailles’ most endearing and relatable characters. And Alexander Vlahos does a masterful job of portraying one of history’s most complicated figures.
What we love most
Versailles is worth watching for the costumes and sets all by themselves. Of course, some of it was filmed at the real location, which is ridiculously opulent. The costumes — when worn at all — are particularly stunning.
What makes Versailles work, though, is the chemistry between the characters. Louis, tyrant though he is, becomes eminently likable in those moments with those he truly loves, like his brother. Their sibling love-hate relationship pulls you in and makes you want to root for them. Or, at least root for Phillipe.
While Season 3 takes a few liberties with the facts, you’ll probably learn a thing or two about history. Like why the French people were finally moved to start lopping off heads after a couple of hundred years of this nonsense.
Check out Monty Don’s French Gardens, also on Netflix, for a close-up look at the gardens installed at Versailles, much of which survives to this day.
2. The Crown
While not set in the distant past, The Crown does bring one of the current era’s most enigmatic figures to life. And certainly in a most sympathetic way.
It’s hard to believe that during the age of popular entertainment and social media that we know very little about the current Queen of England. The Crown takes us back to Elisabeth II’s younger years. It opens as she is about to marry Prince Phillip. Her father, King George VII (Or Bertie, as his family calls him) is ailing. So, Elizabeth’s choice of husband is of utmost national importance.
He’s a dashing young hero, and watching her being swept off her feet by the handsome Greek prince is nothing less than utterly charming.
What we love most
Perhaps the most enlightening thing you’ll learn in how much Prince Phillip had to put up with during the early years of their marriage. And set in the mid-20th century, you might even be delightfully surprised at how deftly Elizabeth learns to juggles his ego with her own rise to power.
Audiences will probably find that the story of her sister, Princess Margaret, pulls a few heartstrings. While never she never had to make a living, Margaret wasn’t ever really allowed to make a life, either.
Claire Foy shines as Elizabeth II, and the inner conflict her character frequently faces as a wife and a monarch plays out subtly with every gesture. Another stand-out in the series is John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Lithgow throws himself fully into every role, so his masterly performance in The Crown should surprise no one.
Check out The King’s Speech, also on Netflix. This Academy-Award-winning film features Colin Firth, who took home the Best Actor Oscar for this performance. It dramatizes the story of Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI, and his struggle to overcome a speech impediment as a reluctant new monarch.
3. The Tudors
The Tudors is a pretty sexy take on the whole Henry VIII story. Mainly thanks to its extremely attractive cast. It stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the young monarch and Henry Cavill as his best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
The costuming is glorious, and the sets are decadent. The series played originally on Showtime for four seasons, so you’ll have plenty of eye candy to enjoy.
The series opens with a younger Henry declaring war on France. It goes on to detail the struggles Henry has with the church. Lacking an heir to the throne after years of marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry battles against the pope for an annulment so he can marry again and produce a legitimate male heir. As you may know, Anne Boleyn was his new queen of choice. Until she wasn’t.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers does a competent enough job as the handsome young Henry. He’s less convincing as the older, decrepit version. Henry isn’t a relatable character, so it’s an uphill battle at best.
Natalie Dormer suffers from the same dilemma. Despite her eventual fate, her Anne Boleyn is impossible to sympathize with, considering all the pain and death she leaves in her wake during her rise to power.
What we love most
The intrigues that surround the late medieval political and religious scene will pull you into The Tudors. As a series, the writers took their time to explore every plot, scandal, and conspiracy that rocked Europe and helped give birth to the Reformation.
It’s the breadth and detail of the storytelling that makes The Tudors one of the best historical drama series you can watch on Netflix. If you ever really wondered how one man could change the way the world works just for love — or maybe for lust — you’ll find out how Henry pulled it off.
Check out the PBS documentary Secrets of Henry VIII’s Palace: Hampton Court, also on Netflix. You’ll get some close-up looks at palace he stole from Cardinal Woolsey and the great hall, where Henry had his and Anne’s initials carved into the walls.
4. The Last Kingdom
If you’ve fallen in love with the History Channel’s hit show Vikings, you’ll love The Last Kingdom, too.
Based on the bestselling book series by Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom follows the story of a young Saxon boy, the 9-year-old Uhtred, whose birthright, a minor lordship in Northern England, is stolen. When Uhtred is captured by the raiding Norsemen who killed his father, his uncle usurps his land and title.
Raised by his captors and allying himself with his adoptive father, the Viking Ragnar Ragnarsson, he comes to consider himself a Dane. He grows up as a member of the family, joined by another captured Saxon child, the girl Brida.
When a revenge-seeking Viking fires Ragnar’s home and steals his daughter, young Uhtred and Brida are the only two left alive.
With nothing left to lose, he returns to Saxon life in order to reclaim his title. To gather the support and swords he needs to reclaim the seat, he allies himself with the Saxon king, Alfred the Great.
What we love most
Author Cornwell took obvious pains with the story, and what results is a sheer pleasure on the screen. The story of Uhtred is told with love and humor and pride and humility. While Uhtred is sometimes hyper-competent enough to become annoying, he also makes some really dumb decisions. This makes him a highly relatable character that we hope will triumph.
Alexander Dreymon’s performance as Uhtred is delightful, warm, and sympathetic. David Dawson portrays the cunning King Alfred with intelligence and respect for the historical figure’s seminal role in England’s history.
Another nice touch is the inclusion of the remaining pagan Britons. Despite their dwindling numbers and influence on the island following Roman rule, The Last Kingdom does them justice in its portrayal.
We can never really know how much of the show is historically accurate. We can access the Norse Sagas to get a feel for the time period, but we can’t expect them to be wholly accurate as oral histories prone to embellishment. And while certainly full of action and romance and adventure, it’s the warm and down-to-earth portrayal of the characters that makes The Last Kingdom one of the best drama series on Netflix.
Check out Vikings Unearthed, a PBS Nova TV special, also on Netflix. It dives deep into the recent archaeological exploration of some of the old Norse raiding sites and colonies.
5. Marco Polo
As far as we’re concerned, Marco Polo didn’t get near enough of the love it deserved. The enormous expense of this visually stunning show probably doomed it to only two seasons. But, to us, it will always remain one of the best historical drama series on Netflix.
While critics panned this epic period piece, audiences loved it. That’s not to say that Marco Polo doesn’t have its faults. It has plenty. Gratuitous, sometimes even laughable nudity and sex. Some awkward dialogue. Maybe some pointless plot twists that go nowhere. Okay, we’ll admit, Marco Polo is one of our guilty pleasures.
Rotten Tomatoes logs a critic score of only 24 percent. Audience score? Ninety-two percent, with a user rating average of 4.5 out 5. IMDb shows a similar contrast, with a viewer rating of 8.1 out of 10.
So, what do audiences see in Marco Polo that critics just don’t get?
The story follows young Marco Polo as he finds himself abandoned by his father in the Mongol court of Kublai Khan. In order to secure his access to the profitable Silk Road in 13th-century China, his father offers him up to the Khan as a hostage.
What follows is Marco’s failed attempts to escape and then his eventual resignation to remain and serve the Khan. According to the memoirs written by the real-life Marco Polo, he soon became an official of the court thanks to his knowledge of four languages. In the TV series, Marco becomes quite close to Kublai, who eventually offers Marco the same benefits and privileges of an adopted son.
What we love most
We don’t need to listen to the critics. We just need to listen to our hearts. While the show lacks a strong starting performance by its lead, Lorenzo Richelmy, no one can say he’s hard to look at.
But we’re not really watching Marco Polo for Marco Polo. The reason it’s one of the best historical dramas series is all thanks to the dynamic between Kublai Khan and his wife, Empress Chabi. #relationshipgoals
With Benedict Wong playing Kublai and Joan Chen as Chabi, they’re a smart, sassy, and loving couple at the top of their game. And they work together like a relentless dynasty-building machine. You wish they were your parents. Really.
One of the high points of the production is their decision to cast Asian actors in Asian roles. We know it seems obvious, but you know how Hollywood can be. The historical details aren’t all that accurate. However, the sets are lavish, and the costuming is so over-the-top that Vanity Fair did a feature on them.
Between the sets, the costumes, and the cast, Marco Polo is so pretty, it almost hurts.
After you’ve finished the first season of Marco Polo, treat yourself to the half-hour short, Marco Polo: One Hundred Eyes. It tells the origins of the warrior-monk and how he got his nickname.
While Netflix offers a host of historical serials, these are the five we thought worth watching and then watching again. And although there are many great shows on Netflix that take place in the past, they didn’t make our list. Some great choices fell under another primary genre.
Here’s a quick list of our favorite runners up that lean more toward a different genre but offer a look at the past as well.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell (fantasy)
- Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (cozy mystery)
- Penny Dreadful (horror)
- Frankenstein Chronicles (horror/crime)
- A Young Doctor’s Notebook (black comedy)
Get Your Binge On with these Period Pieces
This list of the five best period drama series should get you started on your next marathon weekend. Our five runners up will add a little variety, too. And you don’t have to worry if a family member gives you any trouble about how much screen time you’re logging. Just tell them it’s educational!
Featured Image: Promotional Poster via IMDb