Warning: Reading this piece may cause extreme thirst.
You may have noticed a particular kind of TV show popping up on your screen, be it on cable or one of the many streaming services, and that kind of TV show is one steeped in history. But it’s history with a key twist. It’s history wherein the main characters range from slightly warm to super on fire, wherein drama comes from romantic and sexual entanglements that are maybe accurate or maybe ahistorical, and the show’s whole marketing vibe is just: Hey, history is hot. This category of television perhaps began in 2005 with HBO’s Rome—or more wholeheartedly in 2008 with HBO’s John Adams, depending on how you feel about Paul Giamatti—but it has kicked into high gear in the past half-decade.
The latest entry into the “hot history” canon has officially graced our screens with the arrival of Apple TV+. I’m talking, of course, about Dickinson, which presents an Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) who’s as likely to wake up at 4 a.m. to write a poem as she is to tell Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) he’s “a dick” (a direct quote from the show, if probably not from history) and convince all of her peers to take opium at a house party.
Dickinson is hardly the first television show to make its history hot, which, as I see it, is an overarching attitude, not just a description of physical looks. Have the television gods decided that the only way to make a historical TV show fun and watchable is to add youth or hotness or sexual drama to it? (If this is the case, may I suggest that the television gods watch The Crown?) Or have they just discovered that some history—like the reign of Henry VIII, who ruled with his libido, literally changing the religion of a country so that he could divorce his wife and marry his mistress—is so steamy that it might as well be exploited? Whatever the motivation, there is only one result: TV shows that give us history ... but hot.
If your chief concern when it comes to picking which (sometimes ahistorical) history TV show to watch is “how hot is it?” then don’t worry, because I’ve rounded them up here and ranked them in order of how hot-ified (or not-ified) they’ve made the main character. Hot is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and most professional actors tend to be good looking by our society’s often-constraining beauty standards. This is not a ranking of the attractiveness of the actors portraying said historical figures, nor is it about the real historical figures’ looks. My concern here is for the fictionalized portrayals, and hotness as a state of being that goes beyond just subjective superficial appearance. Hotness as an attitude. Hotness as a way of life. In some cases, this is tied to the sexiness of the character and their various situations, as it would appear that in European royal courts, everyone was having sex all the time. (This is what TV has taught us.) But in others, the hotness of a character is closely tied to their rebellious and/or passionate nature. Hot is cool, as much as that may sound like a paradox.
Allow me to set a few parameters for the History, but Hot genre, as there are a lot of historical TV offerings to wade through: (a) the show has to be about a real historical figure (or figures); and (b) hotness should be baked into the premise and/or touted in the marketing of the show. If it’s easy to imagine a person in a pitch meeting saying, “Let’s make [insert historical period or figure] young and hot,” then you’ve got yourself a History, but Hot TV show. For this ranking, I focused on main characters only—if the character was the primary one being pushed as “hot” by the show, then they’re the one I’m judging. I cut out shows that don’t put an especially hot filter on the subjects and/or history (i.e. Victoria, Narcos, Wolf Hall); shows that don’t necessarily lean in to all the dramatized love affairs or hot rebellious attitudes or flowy, open blouses that show off a lot of bare male chests (there are a lot of these). But of course the line is blurry, and since “hot” is inherently subjective, disagreements may abound. To each hot historical figure our own, presented here from least to most hot.
12. Hot Cesare Borgia (The Borgias)
There’s lots of sexytime on this show, and as Cesare, François Arnaud does give off a whole rugged thing, but he’s quite violent and the main coupling on this show is between Cesare and his sister, Lucrezia. Forbidden romance is usually hot, and it’ll pop up a lot below, but there’s a line, and incest is across that line. Incest is resolutely not hot. (Game of Thrones, ARE YOU LISTENING?)
11. Hot Marco Polo (Marco Polo)
Hotness isn’t super paramount to this show, which focuses on Marco Polo’s (Lorenzo Richelmy) time in Mongolia under the reign of Kublai Khan, but it’s easy to imagine the impetus of the show being, at least partially, “make Marco Polo hot.” There is also a Hot Prince Jingim (son of Kublai Khan) in this show. Polo is good looking, and there’s some steamy/illicit hooking up going on, but ultimately, Hot Marco Polo isn’t all that hot. He’s actually sort of boring.
10. Hot Einstein (Genius: Einstein)
Genius certainly aims, from the moment we meet the older Einstein in the show’s first episode, to lean in to Einstein’s carnal nature as well as his brilliant brain. It casts Einstein as the bad boy of physics who gets around with the ladies (in both his younger and older years), which is all well and good, but Johnny Flynn’s portrayal as Young Einstein is a bit lackluster—perhaps because the show itself is slow. So even though Einstein is confident, passionate, driven, and definitely getting it in, the hot-ification of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century is lacking just a bit of heat.
9. Hot Catherine of Aragon (The Spanish Princess)
This Catherine of Aragon (Charlotte Hope) boldly goes for what she wants and often gets it, and her romance with Prince Harry (later King Henry VIII) is steamy, since it was forbidden, as she was his brother’s widow. Much is made of whether or not Arthur and Catherine ever consummated their marriage, a discussion that’s not quite as hot as the moments when Catherine and Harry steal away to be together. However, the show doesn’t lean into the hotness as much as it could (not that I’m saying it should, but, ya know, this is a hotness ranking).
8. Hot Picasso (Genius: Picasso)
The second installation of Genius fully embraces Picasso’s many romantic relationships (many of them extramarital affairs), as well as addresses the fact that one of his lovers wrote a tell-all book about how he was controlling and abusive. It’s also a bit slow, which dampens the hot-ified image of a Picasso that so many women found sexy that the show is clearly trying to capitalize on. Points given for this particular portrayal of Picasso, though, if only for his fevered artistic passion, Alex Rich’s soft-but-intense gaze, and the seductive way Antonio Banderas says, “I want to paint you.”
7. Hot Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Reign)
Mary got the CW treatment in 2013, and Reign presented her stay in French court as filled with drama, conflicting interests and alliances, power struggles, and lots of romantic dalliances, of both the forbidden and “proper” kind. Mary (Adelaide Kane), who was portrayed as a bit sheltered and naïve before coming into her power, fell for half-brothers—one of whom was her betrothed—as well as one of their cousins, and her ladies-in-waiting got into all kinds of hot messes.
6. Hot Catherine the Great (Catherine the Great)
This limited series hasn’t even finished yet, but let me be clear: Helen Mirren’s portrayal of a power-hungry, man-hungry, terrifying Catherine the Great is hot. Because even though this thought exercise isn’t about judging the actors, everything Dame Helen Mirren does is hot and we all know it.
5. Hot Abe Woodhull (Turn)
Spying is hot. Fighting for freedom is hot (though obviously our country’s history is complicated and messy). This show slid the hotness lens onto the American Revolutionary War, adding in forbidden romances and palpable chemistry, and enhancing the lies, secret missions, and trysts, and made Jamie Bell’s Abraham Woodhull—and others, like John Andre—pretty dang hot.
4. Hot Shakespeare (Will)
Welcome to the world of punk rock Shakespeare. In this show, “Willy Wankerspeare” (Laurie Davidson) leaves his family in Stratford to make it as a playwright in a debaucherous London. Will’s Will is passionate, determined, and a gifted wordsmith who, in the show’s pilot, not only wows the proprietors and players at the Globe with his play, but also wins a word duel at a pub. Plus he has an earring and piercing baby blues on top of it all, and there’s also a Hot Christopher Marlowe in the mix. As Paris Hilton, the Shakespeare of the early aughts, would say: That’s hot.
3. Hot Emily Dickinson (Dickinson)
In Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s middle name might as well be “BDE.” Steinfeld’s Emily is utterly herself, even when everyone around her thinks she’s a weirdo, and there’s really nothing hotter than being true to yourself (or dressing up as a man with your best friend/lover to sneak into a lecture). She has conversations with moths and hallucinated bees. She hooks up with Sue, the aforementioned best friend. She befriends Death. The show has some sensitive, serious, and contemplative moments mixed in with the secretive romances and acts of rebellion, but Emily Dickinson has officially been remixed, modernized, and hot-ified.
2. Hot Henry VIII of England (The Tudors)
In The Tudors, one of the forefathers of this genre, Henry VIII is, like, cut. From marble. This show is all about the erotic drama of Henry VIII’s court, much of which stems from Henry’s own lust and absolute power, and where those two things intersected. Men with unchecked power, sexual or otherwise, can be dangerous—just ask Anne Boleyn—but this portrayal of Henry, in all of his Jonathan Rhys Meyers pouty-lipped and smoldering-gazed glory, is history made hot to the extreme. Truly, what a come-up for Henry VIII, who in real life kind of looked like a troll.
1. Hot Da Vinci (Da Vinci’s Demons)
Leonardo da Vinci: not just a talented artist and brilliant inventor, but a cocky, troublemaking man around town, too. At least according to Da Vinci’s Demons, in which Leonardo da Vinci gets the hotness treatment. Florence’s rebellious son—played by Tom Riley—has an affair with one of the Medicis’ mistresses, hooks up with Jacopo Saltarelli, and generally just freely explores his sexual whims and desires. His genius, wild mind is hot, as are his sexual adventures and his bucking of the restrictive Roman Catholic propriety. It’s all about danger and deviance from the governing norms for this depiction of Leonardo. Very hot.
Before I go, there are a few honorable mentions of note: Hot Casanova, whose show (aptly named Casanova) never made it past the pilot but cast Diego Luna as a guy whose name is synonymous with “lothario” and “player”; Masters of Sex: Is this history made hot or just history that’s actually all about sex and therefore inherently kinda hot? Discuss; Camelot and Merlin, debatable whether this is really real history; and Victoria, The Last Czars, Godfather of Harlem, Narcos, Gunpowder, Wolf Hall, and The Crown, wherein we get dramatic, intriguing history but no one is really made hot, per se. Finally, where will HBO Max’s Hot Mary Shelley land when it arrives on our screens? Can’t wait to find out.
Jessica MacLeish is a pop culture writer and freelance book editor based in Brooklyn (but also on the World Wide Web, tweeting sporadically @jessmacleish).