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TV trend puts viewers in a time machine

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Janet Montgomery as Mary Sibley and Shane West as John Alden in Salem.

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WGN America Janet Montgomery as Mary Sibley and Shane West as John Alden in Salem.

As far as TV is concerned, there's nothing wrong with living in the past.

This spring, new and returning series connect viewers to 17th-century witches (Space's Salem), 1960s advertising executives (AMC's Mad Men) and 18th-century Revolutionary War spies (AMC's Turn).

They join a field of more than two dozen current or upcoming series set in earlier times, from the distant past (History's Vikings) to the 1990s (Fox's Surviving Jack), creating a dilemma for those who have long seen TV as a refuge from history lessons.

Shows set in earlier times "give an audience a suggestion of how much we've progressed and how much we haven't," says Ron Simon, a television curator at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles.

Television has long had an affinity for the past: Westerns set in the 1800s held sway in the 1950s and 1960s. MASH, which launched in 1972 during the Vietnam War, commented on war via the Korean conflict two decades earlier. Later, comedy went for nostalgia, looking back comedically -- a generation removed -- on the '50s (Happy Days), the '60s (The Wonder Years) and the '70s (That 70's Show).

A period drama often comes with higher costs and greater scrutiny from historians and others judging the details, but it can achieve a laudable goal: Transporting viewers to a different place, says Joel Stillerman, AMC's chief of original programming.

"It can be really enjoyable to watch. Production designers, costume designers, even visual effects designers get to stretch out on period pieces," he says. "When it's done right, I think there's a really fun payoff, and you get that escapist element in play that you wouldn't get in a contemporary piece."

Yet present-day relevance is an important factor for AMC, also home to Hell on Wheels (19th-century railroad expansion) and an upcoming series, Halt and Catch Fire, about the development of the personal computer in the 1980s.

"Mad Men is this incredibly fascinating prism to look at what's going on in our society with respect to gender, race and the range of issues the show deals with beyond character storytelling," Stillerman says. "Hell on Wheels is set at a point in time where our nation was as divided as it's ever been in history. It's fascinating to explore (that in terms) of some of the things putting a strain on the country these days."

Even a show set in the distant past in a make-believe place can connect with a contemporary audience via universal issues of human relationships and transactions, says Natalie Dormer, a star of Showtime's The Tudors and HBO's Game of Thrones, a fantasy set in a medieval-seeming time.

"It's a way of analyzing situations without holding a mirror up too close to your face, in an uncomfortable way," she says.

Shows also can offer a fresh look at historic eras people think they know, Simon says. Mad Men "brought a whole new perspective on what we think about the '60s."

Older viewers may remember the 1950s of Showtime's Masters of Sex or PBS's Call the Midwife, and many more -- including advertiser-prized young adults -- will connect to shows set in their formative years of the 1980s and early 1990s, including ABC's The Goldbergs, FX's The Americans, CW's The Carrie Diaries and Fox's Jack.

Besides an appeal to viewer nostalgia, the '80s represent a time before technological advancements, such as cellphones and the Internet, were ubiquitous, says Goldbergs creator Adam Goldberg, who grew up in that era. "The world is so connected right now. That was the last time the world was still simple."

Justin Halpern, who based Jack on his own upbringing in the early 1990s, sees that period as "the last time anything was left to your imagination as a kid. Now, you can go online and find everything."

When Mad Men started, so many questions focused on the era -- the historical events, the clothes, the smoking and the drinking -- still, the show had to be more than just about rotary telephones to hold on to an audience mostly unfamiliar with that period, says Elisabeth Moss, who plays rising copywriter Peggy Olson.

"People would ask, 'Why do people watch the show?'" she says. "And I would always say, 'Because it's about the people. They are well-rounded, interesting, flawed, complicated characters, and that's why you keep watching.' "

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2014 D3

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