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Adapted from a series of fantasy novels written by George RR Martin, Game of Thrones is perhaps the end result of TV’s golden age. It’s glossy, epic in scope, and hugely saturated on TV screens the world over. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and there are plenty of TV shows like it.
The following list contains my selection of gritty historical epics currently on TV. There has been a slew in recent years so I’ve curated some of my favourites.
There was a lot of hype surrounding Netflix’s historical epic, Marco Polo. It tells the story of the Mongolian horde and its designs for the Chinese empire. The narrative follows a distinctly western gaze, however, as it is seen through the eyes of its titular character.
It’s a TV show that’s grand in scope, lavish in terms of location and costumes, and it cost a lot to develop (around $9 million an episode). But it’s perhaps not quite as binge-worthy as Game of Thrones.
The History Channel isn’t known for its high budget primetime drama series but it made its first foray with the excellent Vikings. The narrative follows the life of mythical folk hero Ragnar Lothbrok as he pillages and lays waste to the English countryside.
Back home, however, things are more difficult as he vies for control over his Viking kingdom. Initially an outsider and one with big dreams of foreign conquest, Ragnar rises in the Viking ranks with the title of king in mind.
There’s a hint of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, too.
Black Sails is next on the list of series like Game of Thrones and it’s another great example of the sword swinging epic that graces our contemporary TV screens. Black Sails differs from Game of Thrones, however, as it isn’t fantasy and it’s set during the age of pirates.
It functions as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, and its narrative focuses on the tall tales of Captain Flint, a notable, feared, and respected pirate leader. What makes it similar to Game of Thrones lies in the setting – New Providence Island, a pirate’s haven and one that needs a strong ‘king’ to defend it against foreign aggression.
The Australian network Starz is known for its gory but sexy drama series. Spartacus is perhaps one of its more stylised takes and it uses distinctive graphic novel visuals to articulate its tale of the slave hero Spartacus.
The story follows its titular lead character from his initial capture by Roman legions, through his training as a gladiator, to his leadership of a rebellion that threatens to bring one of the strongest empires the world has seen to its knees. There is sadness inherent in the show, however, as its star Andy Whitfield died shortly after filming season one. The TV show continued with Liam McIntyre in the lead role.
Any list of shows similar to Game of Thrones has to include the influential drama series, Rome. Released during the hey day of US drama series, Rome is an attempt at a realist portrayal of the Roman empire, set in its capital, with a focus on the trials and day to day lives of its denizens.
It’s a convincing action epic but it’s also a character piece, too. Rome contains many historical figures including the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, the womaniser and eventual enemy of Rome, Mark Anthony, and of course, Gaius Julius Caesar, the eponymous Roman ‘king’.
Game of Thrones is a hugely influential series but it’s one that owes a lot to the golden age of TV. For fans I would recommend watching either Netflix’s Marco Polo or History’s Vikings. However, it’s also worth exploring other prestige series like Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire, and perhaps the most influential show of the last twenty years – David Simon’s The Wire.
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