The 18th century was inarguably a significant part of worldwide history, but if you’re looking for period shows in a slightly more modern setting, don’t worry; we’ve got you covered!
The shows on this list are set within the 19th century (we did say a little more modern!), amidst the Industrial Revolutions, the rise of the British Empire (and why it’s largely known as the Victorian Era in Britain), and the successful abolitionist movement.
So, don your petticoats and top hats as we take you on a historical trip through this list of top TV shows set in the 19th century!
The Gilded Age, HBO (2022 – present)
The Gilded Age refers to a time period in the late 19th century when the United States saw enormous economic growth. But this growth also came with an ever-increasing need for blue-collar workers, which quickly led to major inequality between the workforce and the rich business owners.
However, there were a lucky few who overcame adversity and rose to levels of riches others could only dream of. HBO’s period drama The Gilded Age is about one such family.
The series follows a conservative “new money” family in 1882 as they try to infiltrate the rich, old-money New York City elite set in their ways.
The Buccaneers, Apple TV+ (2023 – present)
Another newer 19th-century-set drama series that we absolutely must mention in this countdown is Apple TV+’s The Buccaneers.
Based on Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel of the same name, this period drama tells the story of a group of young and rich American women who are sent to London to secure themselves husbands.
But the tightly-corseted 1870s London society is not accepting of the less-traditional Americans, so a culture clash quickly ensues, changing both the Londoners’ and the American debutantes’ lives forever.
1883, Paramount+ (2021 – 2022)
If you’re familiar with Paramount Network’s drama Yellowstone, which follows the Dutton family as they operate the largest ranch in Montana, then you might like Paramount+’s 1883.
As the name suggests, this Yellowstone prequel is set in 1883 and centers on the Dutton family, the ancestors of the Duttons that we know on Yellowstone, as they journey west from Fort Worth, Texas in search of a new home and opportunities on the last American frontier.
And over the course of this limited series, we see James and Margaret Dutton, played by country music legends Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, settle in Montana and begin to make a life for themselves on the land that would later become the Yellowstone Ranch.
Anne With An E, CBC/Netflix (2017 – 2019)
Based on the classic children’s novel Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne with an E tells the story of the orphan Anne Shirley, a wide-eyed, imaginative, and extroverted young girl who has an optimistic outlook despite her circumstances.
Due to an error that has her placed on a farm called Green Gables, the owners and siblings, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, decide to let her stay with them. Life at Green Gables isn’t always easy for Anne, who must use her creativity and intelligence to deal with bullying and discrimination from the community, which eventually accepts her as a part of their own.
The Alienist, TNT (2018 – present)
Also based on a novel of the same name by Caleb Carr, TNT’s The Alienist is a period drama set in 1896 that incorporates a psychological crime thriller twist throughout its narrative. At the core of the first season is a series of murders of young boy prostitutes all over New York City.
Teddy Roosevelt is the city’s police commissioner and distrustful of the NYPD, who care more about protecting the powerful men of NYC than solving the crime. He recruits the help of newspaper illustrator John and criminal psychologist Dr. Kreizler to conduct their own private investigation. Joining them are Roosevelt’s secretary, Sara, and brothers Marcus and Lucius, detective sergeants at the NYPD.
Sanditon, ITV/PBS (2019 – 2023)
Sanditon’s inspiration comes from an unfinished manuscript by the English novelist Jane Austen, who had completed 11 chapters a few months before she passed away.
Charlotte Heywood is the main protagonist and the show follows her story as she moves to the quiet fishing village with a seaside resort named Sanditon.
Though she’s initially keen to explore the town and live a quiet life, she finds that Sanditon may soon undergo a change at the hands of the Parker family, who plans to convert the resort into a luxurious seaside retreat.
Among the members of the Parker clan is Sidney Parker, a handsome and charming but “wild” young man whose brother Tom invites Charlotte to Sanditon after her family helps Tom and his wife when their carriage crashes near their home. Although Sidney and Charlotte initially clash, a romance begins to blossom between them amidst their personal obstacles.
Gentleman Jack, HBO/BBC One (2019 – 2022)
Set in 1832 and based on the collected diaries of landowner and industrialist Anne Lister, which were written in secret code and documented Anne Lister’s life as a lesbian in 19th century England, Gentleman Jack follows Anne (played by Suranne Jones) as she returns home to Yorkshire after the woman she loved broke her heart by marrying a man.
And over the 2 seasons of the show, we see Anne not only develop her estate, the historic Shibden Hall near Halifax, by being interested in everything from coal mining to hoteliering but also fall in love and build her life with the wealthy Ann Walker whom she marries in secret in York.
Bridgerton, Netflix (2020 – present)
Bridgerton follows Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton and her four sons and four daughters as they’re looking for love in Regency-era London.
At the center of the series is Bridgerton’s eldest daughter, Daphne, who’s learning to navigate the upper echelons of high society in hopes of finding a wealthy husband.
Will meeting the Duke of Hastings, one of London’s most eligible bachelors, help that dream come to fruition? And what will Lady Whistledown, who’s basically a 19th-century version of Gossip Girl, say about it in her Society Papers? Find out by watching Bridgerton on Netflix!
The Empress, Netflix (2022 – present)
Another Netflix period drama and the only foreign-language series on this list is Netflix’s The Empress or Die Kaiserin in its original German.
Set in the mid-19th century, The Empress follows Bavarian Duchess Elisabeth as she falls in love and marries Franz Joseph I, the Emperor of Austria, becoming Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
The story starts with Sisi, her mother, and her sister Helene traveling to meet the Emperor so he can ask Helene to marry him. Only Helene isn’t the one to catch the young Emperor’s eye, and he proposes to Elisabeth instead. And so begins the free-spirited duchess’s journey to becoming the Empress. And all the intrigue, scheming, and court politics that come with it.
Underground, WGN America (2016 – 2017)
Underground is a gripping period drama set in Antebellum Georgia, where the South was rife with slavery and racism.
Noah is a courageous and driven slave on the Macon plantation who dreams of a better life and fights for it by orchestrating an escape with his fellow slaves.
Despite the grave risks involved, Noah sets his plan into motion to travel hundreds of miles away through the Underground Railroad.
Those who follow him hold his courage and the possibility of their true freedom as inspiration to keep them going regardless of the dangers constantly looming ahead.
Dickinson, Apple TV+ (2019 – 2021)
Emily Dickinson was a prolific poet and writer who lived during the 19th century and whose life serves as the loose inspiration for Apple TV+’s series Dickinson.
In her time, she was known to be a bit of an eccentric and this is certainly reflected in the historical comedy-drama series, which Deadline reports to have a “modern sensibility and tone”.
It’s a coming-of-age story about a young woman with a world perspective much more progressive than that of the time she lives in. As a hopeful writer, Emily fights to make a name for herself in the literary world by pushing the boundaries and exploring the limits of “society, gender, and family.”
Miss Scarlet & The Duke, Alibi (2020 – present)
Being a female private investigator in Victorian London was unheard of. That’s why Miss Scarlet & The Duke is so captivating.
The show follows Eliza Scarlet, a young woman who’s left nearly penniless when her father suddenly passes away.
Instead of looking for a husband, Eliza decides to keep her father’s detective agency open to make ends meet. But crime-solving in 1882 is a man’s world. So, to build her reputation, Eliza works under her father Henry’s name and steals case files from an old family friend, William “The Duke” Wellington, who’s the Detective Inspector of Scotland Yard.
Although the Duke is not pleased with Eliza’s new craft at first, he soon realizes how skilled Miss Scarlet really is.
Dickensian, BBC One (2015 – 2016)
Dickensian is a goldmine for literary buffs, especially for fans of the titular Charles Dickens, one of the greatest novelists from the 19th century whose influence has lasted until the present.
BBC One’s literary drama series brings to life many of Dickens’ well-known fictional characters against the backdrop of 19th-century Victorian-era London, where their paths cross and intertwine as Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner, is murdered (so presumably, this is all before the events in A Christmas Carol).
Other notable characters from Dickens’ works include Amelia and Arthur Havisham (Great Expectations), Inspector Bucket (Bleak House), Bob and Tiny Tim Cratchit (A Christmas Carol), and Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist).
Great Expectations, BBC One (2011)
Great Expectations is arguably one of Charles Dickens’ more well-known works and is a staple in every school reading list until today (in fact, I remember having to do a book report on it in 6th grade!).
It’s also likely the novel that’s been adapted into shows and movies the most often, and BBC One adds another to the list with their three-part miniseries.
The show follows young orphan Pip as he’s first adopted into Miss Havisham’s household as a playmate for her adopted daughter, Estella. After many years, however, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor who has offered to pay for him to learn the ropes of becoming a proper gentleman in London.
The Artful Dodger, Disney+ (2023 – present)
Speaking of Charles Dickens, we also have to include this recent treasure of a period drama.
Serving as a sequel to Dickens’s classic novel Oliver Twist, The Artful Dodger is set in 1850s Australia and follows Jack Dawkins, a former Royal Navy surgeon who’s quickly building a reputation as a promising young doctor.
But when Jack’s former surrogate father, Fagin, comes back into his life, he’s forced to return to a life of crime, which threatens to jeopardize both his medical career and his budding relationship with the ambitious governor’s daughter, Lady Belle Fox.
Penny Dreadful, Showtime (2014 – 2016)
Showtime’s Penny Dreadful also borrows characters from famous 19th-century literary works across England and Ireland. These include Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing (Dracula), Victor Frankenstein and his Creature (Frankenstein), and even Henry Jekyll (Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
As the show’s title is a reference to the popular serial publications in the UK during the 19th century – literature that told sensational stories of supernatural or criminal subject matter – Penny Dreadful follows the story of Vanessa Ives, a powerful medium, Malcolm Murray, a hunter and explorer, and Ethan Chandler, a skilled marksman, as they save Malcolm’s daughter and fight against supernatural entities.
Murdoch Mysteries, Citytv/CBC (2008 – present)
The titular character in this crime drama series is Detective William Murdoch from the Toronto Constabulary, who uses unconventional methods to solve his cases. At least, they were unconventional in his 19th century time, but we in the 21st century may recognize them as fingerprinting, stakeouts, and even trace evidence.
The series is based on characters created by author Maureen Jennings for her Detective Murdoch novels, including – apart from the detective himself – Murdoch’s boss, Inspector Brackenreid, who prefers to stick to traditional methods of investigation, and Doctor Ogden and Constable Crabtree. Together, they use their expertise to investigate the most brutal crimes in their city, some of which even feature historical figures and real-life events.
Deadwood, HBO (2004 – 2006)
Historically, Deadwood, South Dakota, was a hotspot in the late 19th century, particularly during the years of the Black Hills Gold Rush when people flocked to the area with the hopes of hitting gold – literally – after gold deposits were found there.
HBO’s western period drama Deadwood follows the development of Deadwood from a camp full of early settlers to a full-blown frontier town, ready to be incorporated into the Dakota Territory.
The early seasons show the town’s lawlessness and reputation for violence featuring many historical figures and events, like Jack “Crooked Nose” McCall, Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and “Wild Bill” Hickok – and the infamous murder of the latter.
Victoria, ITV (2016 – 2019)
Every century has one notable female monarch – Catherine the Great during the 18th century, Queen Elizabeth during the 20th century to the present day, and Queen Victoria during the 19th century.
The 19th century was largely known in the UK as the Victorian era, and ITV’s eponymous series Victoria may help us to better understand why.
The show starts off with Victoria’s ascension to the throne at the age of 18 and focuses on her political and personal relationships, particularly with her advisor Lord Melbourne and her eventual marriage to Prince Albert of Germany.
Its three seasons cover her struggles with juggling her duties as a British monarch, wife, and mother, as well as the way she handled international conflicts such as the Anglo-Afghan War and the Irish Potato Famine, ending just before the start of the Crimean War.
The Nevers, HBO (2021 – 2023)
If you love science fiction, then you will love HBO’s The Nevers, which is a mix of period drama and a sci-fi series.
The Nevers is set in Victorian-era London and tells the tale of the Touched, a group of people, usually women, who suddenly manifest extraordinary abilities.
Among them are two friends, Amalia True and Penance Adair, who fight for their place in the world against the police, The Purists, and anyone else who sees the Touched as a threat and wants to extinguish this newly-formed underclass.
Emma, BBC One (2009)
As a prominent writer of the time, it makes sense for Jane Austen’s works to feature highly when talking about the 19th century. The year before she died, Austen published her novel Emma, which serves as the basis for this BBC One Jane Austen adaptation.
Emma, the main character, is described in the novel as “handsome, clever and rich,” a high-born in society who has lived her entire life in relative luxury, comfort, and ease. As the head of her household with plenty of money already to her name, marriage isn’t really in the cards for her. That doesn’t mean she’s averse to romance, however, as she spends her time playing matchmaker instead for her friends and acquaintances.
The Long Song, BBC One (2018)
Another series that deserves a spot on this list of the best TV shows set in the 19th century is BBC’s The Long Song.
Based on Andrea Levy’s 2010 historical novel by the same name, The Long Song takes place in Jamaica and follows July, a young Black slave who works for Caroline Mortimer at her sugarcane plantation. Over the course of the three episodes of this miniseries, we see July’s life change when the plantation’s new overseer, Robert Goodwin, arrives at Amity and sweeps July off her feet by promising to improve all aspects of her life.
Vanity Fair (2018)
Our last show on this list is another based on a novel, this time of the 1848 book of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray. Set both during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the show follows Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, two young girls who have formed a strong friendship despite their differences in personality and upbringing.
After attending school together, Becky goes to live with Amelia in upper-class London, where Becky uses her natural charm, wit, intelligence – and a little cynicism – to climb up the ladder of British society through seducing upperclass men.