In the opening scenes of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, we are greeted with a sense of foreboding. We see the late fashion designer (Edgar Ramirez) beginning his day, leaving his mansion, greeting friends on the street. The sun is bright, the day looks warm, his life seems lovely. And it is in stark contrast to images of his killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss) who’s preparing to gun him down on the steps of his home; scenes in which Cunanan walks into the ocean and screams before vomiting in a public restroom. It is a juxtaposition that is unnerving, upsetting, and inescapably pulls you in. And then, with the sound of a gunshot and Versace’s quiet “no,” it comes to an end. And we’re transported to another time, another place, and a year even further back in time.
Period dramas are nothing new. Between PBS and the BBC, most of us have sought refuge in the comforts of Jane Austen adaptations and the trials and tribulations of Lord Grantham and his family. 11 years ago, AMC debuted Mad Men, and with it, an over-romanticization of the society and decade it was criticizing. From that sprung series like The Playboy Club, Masters of Sex, and Pan Am (only one of which surviving more than one season), as well as HBO series like Vinyl and Boardwalk Empire (again, only one of which earning critical acclaim). Our zest for the past has always existed, but our current cultural climate has seen an even deeper dive into history. Likely because it feels safer there.
1997, the year in which Gianni Versace was murdered by Andrew Cunanan, feels much closer than the two decades that exists between us and that fateful morning. But we still use those twenty years to fuel an odd sense of comfort. As Versace begins his day, it’s easy to break from the anticipation of tragedy to notice his era-appropriate outfit (white shorts and flip-flops), as well as one bystander’s instinct to grab a Polaroid camera so he could document the crime scene. The wardrobes stand out, the lack of technology, the way the public learned of his death through TV anchors, not smartphones. ACS becomes less a dramatization than a case study, giving us a false sense of wisdom we use to comb through an event that happened long ago. And then believe that through understanding it, we’re in control of . . . something.
Because that’s the merit of a period drama. We get to watch under the guise that we’re advanced, we see what they didn’t. During series like The Crown, we pat ourselves on the back for knowing better; for living through the Meghan Markle era (a wonderful era!) instead of watching a young woman be denied her true love. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel we watch as a woman navigates the hurdles that accompany the world of stand-up, as though comedians (and women in general) today aren’t dealing with as much sexism and scrutiny (just while outfitted differently). Meanwhile, Halt and Catch Fire took us through a journey of technological evolution, that was mesmerized, even if we were fully aware of how history would turn out. Period dramas give us the illusion of superiority, of being certified (armchair) sociologists. We tell ourselves that they didn’t know, but now we do, while escaping a reality that will fuel period dramas for years and years, decades down the line.
Why wouldn’t we escape someplace that feels comforting because it’s familiar (regardless of how problematic that time and era was)? Why would we willingly plunge into the present?
And who can blame us? Everything feels bad. The news is a tire fire. The American presidency gets worse by the day, and our weather’s proving how little control we have over our own planet and futures. Why would we want to spend our free time delving into more of the same? Why wouldn’t we want to escape into the arms of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and The Washington Post during the Nixon administration, where for a fleeting second we can remember what it feels to be motivated and inspired instead of wanting to curl up and nap all the time. Why wouldn’t we want to seek refuge in The Crown which is beautiful to look at and played out in a way that makes you feel equal parts angry, empathetic, and comforted? Why wouldn’t we tune into American Crime Story to lose ourselves in the late 1990s when everything felt so futuristic but was still so stuck and so limited and so small? Why wouldn’t we escape someplace that feels comforting because it’s familiar (regardless of how problematic that time and era was)? Why would we willingly plunge into the present?
So bring on the period dramas. Give me 1997, give me late fifties New York. Let me forget about the present by examining a very contained section of history and with it, the notion that with perspective comes a better understanding (or an end) to specific frustrations and pain. Let me tell myself that it’s different now, and that many of the same problems don’t exist in the same way — or better still, that we’re not regressing and ushering even more damage. Let me treat my TV like an escape vessel or a type of virtual reality. Let me think I’m at least slightly in control because it is 2018 and I don’t think anyone would use a Polaroid camera to document a crime scene.