Debts to the Past?

Do we owe a debt to the past, to portray it accurately and with social sensitivity?  Or should entertainment be viewed as mere escapism and not subject to ethical considerations?  As a historian, I will readily admit that I have a different perspective on these issues than the typical TV watcher or reader of historical fiction.  My preference is historical drama/fiction to be as accurate a portrayal of the past as possible.  But I realize, to a large extent that this is a personal preference.  I wouldn’t expect all viewers to share the same aesthetic standards as me.

Still, I think in the case of historical drama that there are some occasions where the stakes are higher than others.  I’d like to briefly discuss two historical dramas I recently watched that I found unsatisfying, and why I am more forgiving in one case than the other.  These dramas are Reign and Manhattan

I only watched the first season of Reign, which was set in the French court of the sixteenth century and depicts the trials and tribulations of a young Mary Queen of Scots.  Reign is pretty much what you would expect from a TV historical drama set in a sixteenth century court.  It’s full of pageantry, betrayal, sexual intrigue and political plotting.  That aspect of the show didn’t bother me.  But the story line had such a tenuous grip on historical reality I came to the conclusion that it was too ridiculous to waste my time on.  On the other hand, my sister-in-law, who is not a historian, loves the show and could care less about the issue of historical accuracy.  These are personal preferences, and I do not place very much weight on either side of the issue.

Manhattan was a different case for me.  This show addresses one of the most ethically charged episodes in the recent past both of the United States and in the history of science.  I do not specialize in history of technology, as Nathan Kapoor does.  Nor do I study 20th century American history.  Still, it didn’t take me very long to pick up on the fact that the show was more fictionalized than I was quite comfortable with.  As a nation, I don’t that we have genuinely come to grips with all the ethical implications of the bomb.  There are other lingering issues surrounding WWII, such as Holocaust deniers and periodic resurgence of Neo-Nazi groups in both Europe and the US.  So I do find it troubling the way the show Manhattan trivialized some aspects of the history surrounding WWII by taking a real event in history and creating a new cast of characters to play it out.  The result was a chimeric blending of history and fiction with a veneer of historical reality that I don’t think the average TV viewer is quite sophisticated enough to sort out.  It is possible that the show was beneficial to some viewers, encouraging them to seek out more accurate historical information about the time period.  But to those who did not go to such trouble, it seems more likely that it would have reinforced false stereotypical images of the past.

How much should we expect from our entertainment?  In the long run I recognize this is a question that is inclined to elicit a wide range of legitimate responses.  Certainly I have no predilection to dictate to others what the appropriate answer is, but I believe a respectful dialog is merited.  And I do think it is a question worth asking ourselves on a regular basis.

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