Television’s reckoning with the past

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That sense of duty is shown as even stronger in the middle-aged Queen (Olivia Colman) in seasons three and four. But so is the portrayal of how emotionally damaged her children may be, particularly Charles (Josh O’Connor). By the time the series arrives in the 1980s, and the family is seen choosing Diana (Emma Corrin) to be Charles’s wife, presented as a cold-blooded decision all around, the mood of the country we see on screen has shifted. The monarchy’s hold on power is still firm, but not in the unquestioned way it was when Elizabeth inherited the crown in 1952. Her role and her authority are increasingly challenged by striking miners, politicians like Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), and a less deferential press.

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The ultrasharp Mad Men (number two in the poll), set in the very different and more overtly vicious world of US advertising, charts a similar, realistic cultural shift, far from a comforting vision of the past. As the timeline moves from 1960 to 1971, each season focuses more on the sexism its women characters endure, from Peggy’s (Elisabeth Moss) need to hide her pregnancy to the way Joan (Christina Hendricks) is used as a sex object by the men around her, until she finally asserts some power and business acumen of her own. Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is ever the handsome charmer, but the world around him is leaving his type behind.

Even the sublime Downton Abbey (number 36), known as the ultimate in blissful escapism, is more rooted in the real world than it gets credit for. Its characters know that the old, hierarchical class order is shifting under their feet. The order itself threatens them in the very first episode, when the heir to Downton, who is also Mary Crawley’s (Michelle Dockery) fiancĂ©, dies in the Titanic. Of course a woman cannot inherit their beloved Downton. Lucky for them she falls in love with the new heir, Matthew (Dan Stevens).

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