When history meets Hollywood, more often than not, sparks fly. This time, it’s not one but two big, juicy cable TV mini-series, “The Kennedys,” on Reelz and “The Borgias,” on Showtime, debuting this weekend. Both involve political and cultural titans of their time, whose volatile lives are riddled with sexual and political scandals.
And both have drawn the ire of public figures and institutions who question their historical accuracy. The eight-hour drama about the Camelot clan was originally slated for the History Channel but was abandoned after reported, behind-the-scenes politicking by family members Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy. And Catholic groups have protested the degenerate images of the papacy depicted in “The Borgias,” starring Jeremy Irons as a 15th century pope who had multiple mistresses and allegedly bought his office.
All of which raises the question, how accurate are these shows? Historians differ, but using history as a dramatic subject is “a very, very old tradition," says John Baick, history professor at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass, in an e-mail.
The problem with "historical" series is not that they play fast and loose with historical accuracy – "so did Shakespeare” – but rather that people believe that the dramatic license is the truth, says John Rossi, a history professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia.
JFK and 'JFK'
Many people take their view of the Kennedy assassination “from Oliver Stone's awful film, JFK," he says. "There is no way around this even if there is a notification before the film that liberties were being taken."
What complicates matters, he adds, is that people have increasingly substituted films and television for the reading of history.
However, the objections to these shows are not as big as say, the fracas that surrounded the 2003 CBS mini-series “The Reagans.” The broadcaster shuffled that one off to its in-house cable network, Showtime, after advertisers bailed. Neither “The Kennedys” nor "The Borgias” has seen advertisers quailing or any equivalent mainstream angst over historical fidelity.
JFK, Michael Jackson, and painkillers
What may be more interesting about the two series is how they reflect the sensibilities of the present day. President Kennedy is persistently depicted using prescription medications – up to 17 at a time – and even employs a unlicensed medical practitioner to administer regular injections. At one point, the first lady also uses the shadowy “Doctor Feel Good,” to help her get through her busy schedule.
“We just lost Michael Jackson from overuse of prescription painkillers,” she says. “That speaks to our current concern about overprescribing controlled substances,” adding “this generation of college students is more medicated than any in history.”
And of course, the modern sex-abuse scandals inside the Catholic church are still very potent today.
The shows also reflect a media landscape infused with “reality” television, says Matthew Belloni, news director for The Hollywood Reporter. “There is an appetite for seeing unvarnished, real views of historical figures."
This move to ever-edgier content is also part of life in the multichannel universe, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “My channel guide currently offers more than 2000 channels,” he notes with a laugh. Off-the-cultural-radar channels such as Reelz must find the show that will make people say, 'Where do I find that channel in my system?' ”