When television shows help interpret history

What responsibility do television shows have to accurately depicting history? Take the case of The Crown:

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Historical dramas might similarly warp our attitude toward history, encouraging us to expect that cause and effect are obvious, or that world events hinge on single decisions by identifiable individuals. Academics have been trying to demolish the great-man theory of history for more than a century; television dramas put it back together, brick by brick.

What matters here is that we are having the right arguments about these ethical and dramatic decisions, not lobbing grenades at each other from opposing trenches of the culture war. Reasonable people can disagree over artistic license and the writer’s duty of care to her or his subjects. And none of this would be an issue if so many people didn’t love The Crown. Dowden is right to argue that the show is so popular that its interpretation of history will become the definitive one for millions of viewers.

That is something Netflix could mitigate, if it wanted to. Not with a pointless disclaimer, but with an accompanying documentary, rounding out the stories told in the drama. (There is a Crown podcast, featuring Morgan, but I mean something packaged more obviously alongside the main series.) There is certainly an appetite for one: Three unrelated Diana documentaries now clog up my Netflix home screen, and newspapers have published multiple articles separating fact from fiction.

Ultimately, it is not illegitimate to create narratives out of real lives. In fact, a good historical drama has to do so. But when we talk about the monarchy, modern Britain, and the legacy of divisive politicians like Thatcher, The Crown should be the start of a conversation, not the last word.

Television, and mass media more broadly, has the potential to shape how people udnerstand the world. This is not only because people find it a compelling window to the world; the sheer amount of time Americans spend watching TV on a daily basis means that television depictions have at least some influence.

Given this, it is interesting to consider whether Netflix and other producers and distributors of television should do more to depict history accurately. How possible is this? Here are a few problems that might arise:

  1. Balancing a historical drama with an accompanying documentary might help. But, documentaries are also told from particular points of view. And how many viewers will watch all of both?
  2. History is an ongoing narrative. The Crown comes from a particular point of view in a particular time that may or may not with other depictions before and after. Imagine some time passes after Queen Elizabeth dies and another director with a different vision comes along – how different is the story in facts and tone?
  3. Other mediums could present different realities in different ways. History often requires working with a variety of sources, not just visuals. How about at least giving viewers additional resources to consult?
  4. How much should TV viewers know or be expected to know about particular phenomena they observe?

Public understandings of history, academic understandings of history, and other interpretations of history have the potential to interact with and shape each other. How exactly The Crown helps shape the ongoing conversation about the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth, and all the involved actors remains to be seen – and studied.

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