10 Historical Figures Who Should Have Their Own TV Shows


Between FX’s newly announced Rasputin miniseries and CW’s dubiously accurate Reign, we’re in the middle of a mini-boom for historical TV. More specifically, there’s a mini-trend of series based on specific historical figures, plus whatever questionably accurate story lines a room full of writers wants to tack onto their biographies. Sounds like a winning combination to us! So we went ahead and brainstormed a few more real-life men and women who have the makings of a good show in ’em. Here they are, from vicious Mongolian warlords to mysterious plane-jackers.

Genghis Khan

Television’s current massive-scale story of conquest, empire-building, and violence aplenty is a) a fantasy series and b) pretty awful when it comes to handling its only nonwhite racial group, a tribe of horse riders with very loose corollaries to the real-life Mongols. So why not give Genghis Khan his own epic series? It’d be like Game of Thrones, with the added bonus of being real, rife with more opportunities for sex and gore than ever, and most refreshingly, centered on a non-white cast of main characters. It’d cost a fortune, of course, but if Game of Thrones proves anything it’s that insanely expensive shows pay off if the money’s spent well.

Catherine the Great

When it comes to historical HBICs, Elizabeth I (and sometimes II) has gotten the lion’s share of the attention. But Liz can have the high-budget movies as long as Catherine gets her own series, preferably one that gives her the nuanced, amoral treatment typically reserved for male leaders. Because while Catherine did indeed make Russia bigger and richer than ever, she also exploited the country’s agricultural underclass and repressed more than a few rebellions. Hopefully, a TV version of Catherine would be more Iron Lady than Anastasia. Oh, and a Voltaire cameo would be absolutely mandatory.

D.B. Cooper

J.J. Abrams, eat your heart out: man (not actually named D.B. Cooper) boards plane; man hijacks plane; man collects $200,000 in ransom; man parachutes out of plane, never to be seen again, with the exception of some ransom bills found almost a decade later. Combined with a Pacific Northwest setting prime for Twin Peaks references and a fun ’70s time frame, all the elements for a great mystery/supernatural show are there. All that’s left is a massive blank slate for any would-be showrunners to fill in with whatever batshit back story they wish. We don’t know anything about who Cooper is or what happened to him, so his story’s got name recognition without any obligations to historical accuracy. It’s perfect.

Mata Hari

Because anyone whose Wikipedia bio reads “exotic dancer, courtesan, and convicted spy” deserves way more than a simple biopic. Margareta Geertruida Zelle MacLeod left an alcoholic husband and two children behind in the Philippines when she decamped for Paris in 1903 to start a career as a dancer with fictitious Javanese origins. Fourteen years later, she was executed by firing squad for allegedly handing over battle plans to Germany during World War I, claims that turned out to be true when records unsealed in the 1970s showed that Hari had been operating as a German agent since 1915, under the code name “H-21.” There’s 14 years of middle ground to fill in there, and a room full of TV writers seem to be just the men (or, preferably, women) for the job.

Bayard Rustin

A civil rights leader who’s traditionally received far less recognition than he deserves, possibly due to his emphasis on grassroots activism and community organizing rather than public leadership. A gay man who once faced a criminal charge for “sex perversion” and confronted homophobia both inside and outside the civil rights movement, Rustin’s story is a study in intersectionality, an issue that’s increasingly a part of today’s social justice discourse. Rustin got his start as a nightclub singer in New York before going on to play a key role in organizing both the Congress on Racial Equality and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and remained active in the gay rights and labor movements until his death in 1987. Basically, no shortage of endlessly relevant material there.

George Orwell

Time and place alone make Orwell’s story worth telling. The man was a firsthand witness to most of the 20th century’s most significant geopolitical goings-on, from the British empire in the middle of its slow decline to the Spanish Civil War to World War II to the rise of Stalin’s brand of repressive communism. Add to that Eric Arthur Blair’s built-in character development from dutiful cog in the colonial machine to socialist, anti-communist firebrand and you’ve got the stuff of an excellent saga. Whether there’s a TV writer up to inhabiting Orwell’s critical, incisive voice, let alone living up to it, for seasons on end is another question.

The Medicis

No, they wouldn’t be the first near-omnipotent Italian family to get their own show on premium cable (and let’s be real here: the only networks willing to touch these guys with a ten-foot pole are HBO, Showtime, and maybe Netflix). But where The Borgias delights in being oversexed and generally over-the-top, a Medici series would be committed to the more subtle work of making high finance and subtle political maneuvering into the stuff of good television. The show would have its work cut out for it, but thanks to figures like Machiavelli and Michelangelo floating around the edges, it’d also have the rather easy task of making the Renaissance and its accompanying artistic boom look beautiful on TV.

Elsa Schiaparelli

She’s the revolutionary fashion designer most people haven’t heard of, probably because she isn’t Coco Chanel. One half of last year’s excellent Costume Institute exhibit Impossible Conversations, which juxtaposed her designs with creative successor Miuccia Prada’s, Schiaparelli’s got more than enough major life events and famous friends to fill up a season or five. She hung out with everyone from Man Ray to Mae West, collaborated with Salvador Dali, and experienced plenty of lows along with her highs, including a failed marriage and the collapse of her business. Plus once Mad Men ends, someone’s gotta put Janie Bryant’s unparalleled period costume skills to good use.

Vlad the Impaler

Forget Dracula, unexpectedly good as it may be. Now that the vogue for vampires has presumably run its half-decade-long course, why not go straight to the source material? Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and everything else would be nowhere if it weren’t for a certain 15th-century nobleman. A Vlad series could be either a straight historical drama or a loony-tunes, pseudo-historical horror show, and in the age of Ryan Murphy’s brand of melodramatic genius, I know which one I’d prefer. Besides, medieval Romania hasn’t gotten nearly the screen time it deserves.

Saigo Takamori

Someone’s gotta reclaim the title of “last samurai” from that white guy played by Tom Cruise. In fact, the rebellion depicted in the 2003 movie was led by Takamori himself, making him a much more fitting figure for examining Japan’s mid-19th century shift towards Westernization than Cruise’s character. Though Takamori’s death by seppuku in 1877 puts a natural end to any series centered on him, the truly interesting stuff starts a decade earlier, when he played a key role in transitioning Japan from the Tokugawa shogunate to a renewed, centralized imperial state. Takamori eventually became a lightning rod for the frustrations of an increasingly marginalized class of samurai, a gradual shift that’s an ideal opportunity for a Mad Men-style multi-season look at historical change.