Why Every Historian Should Watch (More) Television

In my first job out of graduate school, I team-taught an undergraduate seminar with an older, male colleague. On the first day of class, the students went around the room introducing themselves and talking about their interests. When it was my turn, I listed my interests as “Nineteenth-century southern history, American literature, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”


The students laughed, and my colleague looked quizzical. “What is that?” he asked. “A television show,” a student said. “One of the best television shows of all time,” I added. When it was my colleague’s turn to introduce himself, he listed his interests (nineteenth-century American literature and philosophy) and then said – snarkily – “And I threw my television out the window long ago.”

I knew what he was doing here – seeking to undermine my connection with the students about this show he had never heard of. And I had a hard time not rolling my eyes, as I do now whenever someone (often an academic) says, with an air of moral judgment, that they rarely or never watch TV.

I grew up with parents who valued both books and television, the symphony and The Love Boat. I watched a huge range of shows as a child, from popular comedies to dramas to sci fi to the original miniseries Roots. It was a time before DVRs and for a while, before VCRs, so TV watching was part of the rhythm of the day, and a family affair. My mother’s love of television (and film) was so strong that she convinced my father to finish our basement as a “theater,” with rows of easy chairs and framed movie posters on the walls.

tumblr_nh4a9rpjRd1qbq9ebo4_250One legendary night, when I came home in distress because I had blown a tire on my ’63 Nash Rambler Classic and didn’t have a spare and I hurt myself running back to my friend’s house to get a ride, my parents waved me off, saying, “Can’t you wait until Designing Women is over?”

Although I left home at 17, I took this love of television with me. My appetite for it continues to be prodigious; my DVR is usually full, as is my Netflix queue (House of Cards, people. House of Cards!). In this I don’t think I am terribly unusual. I suspect that the vast majority of my colleagues do watch television – this isn’t a profession dominated by ascetics. But most of my colleagues treat TV as a relaxing (or nail-biting, depending on the show) break from work, from thinking about history and writing. If we talk about the shows we watch in public it is with a kind of conspiratorial glee, a sense that we should definitely not be watching The Vampire Diaries, much less enjoying it.

It is my contention, however, that historians should watch television – or even more of it, if they watch already – for a couple of reasons.

Most obviously, television can tell us a lot about what the larger American public understands as “history.”

This means watching explicitly “historical” shows like PBS’ Mercy Street or the upcoming History Channel reboot of Roots (the preview is phenomenal and gives me hope that this won’t be a total hot mess), but also shows that depict a more recent past like Mad Men.


These shows shape the way viewers understand history and its racial, gender, and social dynamics. It’s important to know what’s out there, shaping readers’ and students’ perceptions of the past.

There are also television shows in which history appears in surprising ways. I’ve already written on Historista about the Civil War histories in the aforementioned Vampire Diaries, and there are many more examples across the spectrum. Confederate reenactors keep popping up in House of Cards, for example. Here, the question becomes more about the function of history in popular culture – what purpose does it serve to give a character a historically specific backstory, or to place characters in a situation that engages with history? And how does this influence viewers’ own engagements with that history?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more you read, the better you write. But it is also true that television can provide useful lessons in – or even templates for – historical storytelling.

American television has always experimented with form – and has done so increasingly in the past ten years. Think of Twin Peaks, the first serialized drama in which the protagonist investigates one murder for the entire season, a precursor to many dramatic narratives on television today.


Or the The X-Files, which was the first show to embed a season-long narrative arc in an otherwise traditional detective procedural. Scully and Mulder investigated a different paranormal event every week, but the thread that ran through it all was their investigation of a government conspiracy to hide an alien invasion.

And then there was 24, which revolutionized our sense of “TV time” by merging it with real time.

As we think about the ways television continually reinvents narratives structures within standard time slots – the flashback/flash-forward, the switch in point of view (ex: The Affair) – we should think about how we might restructure historical studies within the standard framework of the article and the book. I’ve already discussed the possibilities of these kinds of reinventions elsewhere so I won’t go into them here, but we should see television as inspiring narrative creativity in this sense.

In historical dramas, paying attention to how the show’s producers and show runners create a sense of historical authenticity is also useful. Dialogue, props, and clothing all create a “world” that the viewer buys into as historically authentic. How might these kinds of details help us to convey historical arguments?

Television characters have become increasingly complex – and can help us see how to depict historical figures who are similarly complicated.


Protagonists – especially in shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, and the The Walking Dead – are often incredibly flawed, and they challenge the notion of what a “hero” is in stories, and how viewers respond to them. This should encourage historians to convey the complexities of individuals in their studies, and not shy away from either the ugliness of “heroes,” or the sympathetic actions of “villains.”


In the end, we all make our choices about how to spend our time. However, we should not think of watching television as a waste of that time, but as time spent experiencing different forms of storytelling. And perhaps our writing will be the better for it.

It’s been great writing this post but now I gotta go. Frank Underwood is waiting.


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