The 6 Most Underrated Period Dramas of the '90s
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
The 1990s gave us some of the best period dramas of all time. Films like Pride and Prejudice (1995), Titanic, and Sense and Sensibility (1995) are iconic within the period drama fandom, and for good reason. However, there are a handful of films/tv series from these years that are equally as amazing but for one reason or another are not talked about as much. Some of my favorite films come from this list and, in my opinion, are some of the best films, not just of the decade, but of the genre itself.
As underrated TV shows go, Christy tops the list. Set during the late Edwardian era, Christy Huddleston (Kellie Martin, ER) is an idealistic nineteen-year-old who uproots from her rich, societal life to teach school in a backwoods mission. This TV series is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Catherine Marshall and, despite its being well received, was canceled after only two seasons. Three TV movies were made in the early 2000s to compensate for the inexplicable ending of the series finale but, as many of the main actors didn't return for production (including Kellie Martin), the films are not considered a part of the Christy series canon.
When I watched this series for the first time, I was surprised by the lengths to which it was willing to go to display how difficult life was for the residents of Cutter Gap. Being a general audience show, I expected it to sugarcoat the circumstances that the Tennessee highlander's lived in - but it didn't. The accuracy and attention to detail surprised me greatly and, after three re-watches of this series, I still find myself surprised at the harsh realities Christy willingly displayed without the necessity of overly exposed/gory details.
One of my favorite things about this series is the relationship between Christy and Dr. Neil MacNeill (Stewart Finlay-McLennan, National Treasure). They couldn't be more different in their ideals and philosophies on life, but their like-minded strength of character and need to serve others bonds them in a very special way. Their relationship keeps you on your toes throughout the entire series, and you are guaranteed to be a part of the Dr. MacNeill Fan Club by the end of it.
Overall, Christy is a fantastic series for viewers who enjoy family-friendly content but don't want to sacrifice more serious storylines. For a taste of what this show has to offer, watch the series intro sequence below:
By Way of the Stars (1992)
Famous for the Anne of Green Gables films (1985/1987), one of Sullivan Entertainment's lesser-known mini-series is By Way of The Stars. Based in the 1860s, this series follows the adventures of Lukas Bienmann (Zachary Bennett, The Umbrella Academy) and Baroness Ursula Von Knabig (Gema Zamprogna, The Challengers), as they make their way from the aristocratic society of Prussia to living as frontier pioneers in upper Canada. Originally released as a six-hour series, Sullivan Entertainment later released a movie-length version, condensing the story into 149 minutes; both versions are available.
When I watched this series for the first time, I really didn't know what I was in for. I expected the typical family-friendly formula that Sullivan has perfected over the years with his other productions. However, I was surprised to find a much more serious and tragic narrative. Much of this series deals in tragedy, untimely death, harsh realities, and a very blatant look into the treatment of minority peoples. Despite our leads being portrayed by teenagers, they follow a storyline that matures them severely by the series end, endearing you to their characters all the more.
As a fellow Canadian, I found the parts based in the frontier the most interesting, as it gives a look into Canadian history that is not often covered. Actors such as R.H Thompson (Anne With an E) shine in their roles in memorable and impactful ways. A moment that stands out to me, in particular, is a speech given by Thompson's character about how the white man caused the chaos of the "Indian wars." It's a moment from the film that viewers will not forget due to his simple yet powerful illustration of the unjust havoc that was caused.
Despite some badly executed accents by one or two actors (who otherwise give phenomenal performances), By Way of The Stars is a must-watch series for any Sullivan Entertainment fan and for anyone who enjoys raw looks at significant moments in history. If you're interested in this series, watch the trailer below:
Jane Eyre (1996)
I read Jane Eyre before watching any of the adaptations so, unlike most people who were drawn to the 2011 adaptation (which is also amazing,) I felt that I should start with one of the first adaptations. This version, while not being as true to the storyline as the 2011 version, carries the right Bronte-esque aesthetic feel that readers of the novel would expect - it's gothic and at times eerie, giving me the same feeling as a viewer that I had while reading.
This version of Jane Eyre also features my favorite Mr. Rochester (William Hurt, Tuck Everlasting). Hurt's performance is probably the closest to how I pictured Rochester being, both personality-wise and in appearance. While I love Michael Fassbender's Rochester (2011), I personally enjoy the less charming version of the character. It's easy to fall in love with Fassbender's Rochester, but Hurt plays the character in a way that really makes you feel conflicted about whether he's the good or bad guy in the story, reflective of the novel's original narrative.
If your first introduction to Jane Eyre was through Charlotte Bronte's n0vel, I highly recommend watching the 1996 film before any of the other adaptations, as it is certain to retain the feel and aesthetics of the book. If you're interested in viewing this film, watch the trailer below:
Road to Avonlea (1990-1996)
Road to Avonlea (Sullivan Entertainment) is one of the shows that became a life changer for me. Anne of Green Gables being my all-time favorite novel and film, I was more than willing to try this series when my best friend first introduced it to me; little did I know it would impact me on such a personal level, that it almost outranks my love for the Anne films (not quite, but almost).
Based in 1903-1912, Road to Avonlea begins by following the story of Sarah Stanley (Sarah Polley, My Life Without Me) who comes to live in Avonlea with her family, The Kings, after her father is wrongfully imprisoned. As the series progresses, Sarah becomes more of a side character, and the storyline begins to focus more around the other King family members. The series features such pivotal characters as Muriel Stacey (Marilyn Lightstone), Marilla Cuthbert (Colleen Dewhurst), and Rachel Lynde (Patricia Hamilton) from the Anne of Green Gables films. Even Gilbert Blythe (Johnathan Crombie) has a cameo in the third season of the series.
The show follows the storylines from L.M.M's novels The Chronicles of Avonlea, The Further Chronicles of Avonlea, The Story Girl, and The Golden Road. The show eventually begins using its own original storylines, but they manage to retain the same feel and spirit of L.M Montgomery's writings. Being a "slice of life" series, RTA retains a very wholesome and family-friendly feeling that makes Avonlea feel like a second home. To this day, it is my personal favorite period drama series and, no matter how many times I rewatch it, it never gets old.
If you're interested in viewing this beautiful show, watch the below trailer:
Swing Kids (1993)
Growing up with music from Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, Swing Kids is a film that I was instantly attracted to when I came across it. Based in WWII Germany, this film follows the story of Peter Muller (Robert Sean Leonard, The Dead Poets Society) and Thomas Berger (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight), two young German boys who are obsessed with swing music and dancing. When they are both forced to join the Nazi party, their lives are derailed when one of them begins to believe in and embrace the teachings of the Nazis, jeopardizing not only their love for swing and big band but their friendship.
This film is intelligently written and executed, as it displays how risky even listening to swing/big band music was in Nazi Germany. The music was banned due to many of the famous musicians being either black or Jewish. Benny Goodman, "The King of Swing," plays a pivotal role in this film as the boys' favorite musician and lays within the heart of the controversy, as he was a Jewish American performer.
Swing Kids really makes fans of jazz/swing/big band view this music genre in a very different light and will truly make you appreciate how fortunate we are to still retain this genre to this day. If you're a fan of WWII films and the aesthetics of the 1940s, this is the right film for you. Check out the trailer below to learn more about it:
Ever After (1998)
Ever After is one of the first period dramas I was ever exposed to and was one of my favorite films growing up. Meant as a more realistic adaptation of Cinderella, Ever After follows the story of Danielle de Barbarac (Drew Barrymore, Never Been Kissed) in sixteenth-century France. After the unexpected death of her father, Danielle is condemned to a life as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters. However, when she poses as a Courtier to save a fellow servant from slavery, she comes into contact with Henry, the prince of France (Dougray Scott, Mission: Impossible II). Believing her to be of noble blood, Henry instantly falls for Danielle, whose charade of being a Countess complicates her life in ways she never expected.
Despite a few historical discrepancies (ex. pink eyeshadow), this film still manages to give a decent glimpse into sixteenth-century life, covering issues such as slavery, the treatment of gypsies, and lack of education for the common man. One of my favorite things about this film is the inclusion of Leonardo Da Vinci as a main character. His portrayal by Patrick Godfrey (A Room With a View) is exactly how I imagined Da Vinci to be, and his inclusion is a fantastic symbol for the artistic and Romantic movements of the Renaissance era.
This film manages to really draw you into its era and, despite the true difficulty of life in 1512, the aesthetics are so inviting that you end the film almost wishing you had been born as a French peasant. If you are a fan of Cinderella stories and Renaissance-era fiction, this is a must-watch film to add to the list. Watch the below trailer if you'd like to learn more about this beautiful story: