For those who don’t know, I was a history student before I switched to business. For someone who likes stories as much as I do, I was really drawn to it. As a history student, finding historical dramas and enjoying them was an unintended side effect. Marco Polo was really the last good one. Great looking shots, good writing, accuracy. And if not accuracy, then the plot was interesting and the characters were deep. A multi-ethnic cast and awesome costume design, it really does sit among the top historical shows in the last few years. At least the first season.
Looking to scratch that itch, Sam and I started looking for other shows to fill the void. She had seen gifs of Versailles on Tumblr and had started watching it. Then, a few days ago, we put on Medici: Masters of Florence, more as something to listen to in the background while we were at her mother’s house Christmas Eve. She was practicing her drawing, but I ended up watching it with some interest, then watched Versailles.
With two contenders, you know what that means. In this corner, we have the foppish Versailles. In the other corner, we have the Mafioso looking Medici. Two dramas enter, one leaves with the title of “Better Than the Other One”. If you’re going to spend some time in the past, which show should you spend it on?
Design wise, the two shows are pretty comparable. For the sets, I think Versailles wins out. Medici has churches, but Versailles has the palace, and you can’t really beat that out. There aren’t many shots of the full palace other than some from the Hall of Mirrors, but it’s still pretty beautiful. When it comes to the most noteworthy royal homes in history, there’s no room for competition.
But Medici I think takes it for costumes. Versailles has great costumes, and they manage to get Philippe in a dress, but Medici really makes you feel like you’re looking into the past. Philippe needed to wear a dress, it’s historically accurate and adds to his character, but the costumes almost look like they added things that didn’t need to be there. I loved the cloaks and other outfits for Medici. George Blagden does look incredibly similar to a young Louis XIV when you look at his portraits, so the casting was a good idea, but Medici has Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden and all kinds of people that really bring the show together. It might be personal preference, but I thought they did a really nice job there.
Sound design was a toss-up, and I don’t think either of them deserve praise for it. Versailles made some really strange choices when it came to music, which I’ll go into more later. But although I felt like Medici made the right choices when it came to music, it suffers from the malignant illness of television – really loud effects and music, with super quiet voices. I don’t know how many times we had to change the volume to hear what they were saying, only to be deafened by the next swell of the soundtrack. The music was good and it fit the mood, but we were always scrambling for the remote to protect our ears. No marks for either of them, work on your mixing.
Still, both of them are pretty respectable. Yet one of them is clearly superior. Grab your neck frills and hold on, we need to get pretty real here.
Masters of Nothing
To succeed in being the best period drama, Medici only had to do everything that Versailles didn’t. In that way, it excelled above and beyond.
Because for all of the costumes and set design, Versailles is really bad.
Allow me to explain.
First thing I would note about Versailles is the dissonance of tone. If there’s one thing the show wants, more than people watching it, is to be analyzed – to be important. Every scene is shot in dour, muted colors, which I felt kind of go against what it was to be French aristocracy. Things were colorful and lively, which was the whole problem the commoners had with the royals (apart from the starving in the streets thing). To add to that, every line is delivered with such stone-faced gravity, it kind of pulls the life out of the whole experience. When every line is supposed to be Earth shattering and serious, after the 80th time you hear it, there’s a loss of impact. Lines are carefully crafted, and there’s this incredible attention to detail, which would be good for a lot of shows. But Versailles is in full try-hard mode, and it sucks the soul of the show out when there’s absolutely no levity. The show forgets that at least some of the characters need to be likeable in order for people to keep watching the show. The characters that are supposed to bring some life back to the show are annoying and kind of vicious, specifically Philippe’s lover. Hearing him make yet another innuendo is not endearing. It’s tiring.
Which is why I think the sound design is worth mentioning. With a show that wants so badly to be taken seriously, one would assume that the music would be orchestral and swelling with big instruments and Gregorian choirs? But oh no, Versailles is different. They hit you with a mix of old and new, with modern music thrown in the mix, layered over characters giving deep and existential monologues about their desires and how they plan on achieving their goals. The difference gives me whiplash, and it takes me out of the whole experience. When are people going to learn that there’s no way to capture the magic of A Knight’s Tale? It’s just not something you can follow up. Even changing that little thing would have made the show that much more watchable.
But that’s not nearly the most important aspect that drags the show down.
No, that honor lies solely with the characters and their portrayals. Louis gets and honorable mention here. They really told George Blagden to look like he can see the future, so he has this same half-crazed face in every scene. After a while, it loses its effect. There’s no other emotion on his face – nothing that can break how much he desires to build his palace and seal his place as king. People die and scandal crops up in every crevice of his life, and he continues to look on, stalwart and determined. And boring.
But the big three that really tank the show are Philippe, Maria, and Claudine. We need to take a minute to talk with Philippe here. It’s true that he’s openly gay, which in some ways is really great – the more representation the better. But there’s just something about him that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s that time that he raped his wife. Yea, that’s a thing that happened, and every time stuff like this happens on camera, we have to take a step back another year and work our way back up again toward progress. Sure, being a gay character doesn’t always mean you’re a good person. People are people and we’re all capable of making bad choices. But the rape is unnecessary. There’s no evidence for it that I can find throughout history, and it subtracts from the show as a whole, coloring the whole experience. It’s only a small scene, but it’s enough.
So let’s take a quick aside and talk about that.
NO MEANS NO
When you have sexual assault in the media, you can expect a few things to happen. Like so many times in the past, in this case, it adds nothing to the plot of the show. Maybe it comes up later and happens to be a big deal, but it didn’t need to be there in the first place, and for the first few episodes, it effects nothing. Thus, this is mainly used for shock factor, a cheap way to get people invested in the characters. Rather than making the characters sympathetic or well-written, just have someone rape them, and then you can get people to care about them. That’s horrifying.
First, for all of the audience watching your show that have been victims of sexual assault, you’ve now turned all of them away from your program, no matter how well done it is or how progressive it claims to be. No one wants to relive the worst moments of their lives, and throwing that into a show just cuts them completely out of the experience, and for good reason. Furthermore, it once again brings up the discourse of the acceptability of assault. Kinda sounds like this:
“They didn’t actually show the assault on camera, he was only pushing her down on the table. I mean, what’s the harm in showing it, that kind of thing happens in real life. It just makes the show more realistic. And maybe she liked it, she didn’t really say no. I don’t really see what the harm is, they wouldn’t show it on TV if it was really that bad.” – Some asshole
And that’s the whole problem. You showed it on TV, and how people can argue about whether or not it’s okay when we’ve already had this discussion and come to a consensus.
So for everyone in the back, let me say this loud and clear:
STOP SHOWING THIS STUFF.
IT’S 100% NOT OKAY ANYMORE.
WE’VE EVOLVED PASSED THIS.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
Keep that in the back of your mind the next time you think about adding any of this into your show. The more we have to see it, the more people think it’s all right to even consider the possibility it’s okay. We’ve put it behind us, the science is in. We’re putting a stop to rape culture. Period.
That just leaves Claudine and Maria, and they leave me in a weird place about the show. And it was already pretty weird.
Claudine is pointless. I’ve tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, but her character adds nothing to the functionality of the plot or the show in general. Her character feels tacked on at the very end when they realized that all of the important characters in the show were men, even the ones that come along later. Afraid of the SJWs lurking on Tumblr, they threw together a quick facsimile of what they think strong women are in a show. “We’ll have a girl that’s ahead of her time and really smart medical wise. Not afraid to get her hands dirty. That should shut those damn millennials up.” Well listen here, despite what you might think, fictional executive, I know what good female characters are. Her character would be just fine if she had her own show, if things were all about her, but she just feels really out of place. If someone had been thinking about the kinds of things she was at the time, we would know about her from history, or she most definitely would have been burned at the stake. They try to make her relevant to the plot, but it feels forced. I don’t really think there was anything gained by adding her character other than just to meet a quota, and that’s almost worst.
Maria is perhaps the strangest case of all. I have explored all over this vast internet of ours, done as much research as I could from forums to historical accounts, and I cannot for the life of me justify her affair. I’ll say this up front, I am definitely in favor of having POCs and a diverse cast – hiring a little person with darker skin awesome. But to make them some creepy little sex goblin is really messed up, that doesn’t benefit anyone. There’s no evidence of anything like that happening to Maria Theresa, anything about having a mixed race child out of wedlock. That either means that it’s some little nugget of history I don’t know (unlikely with all of the research I did), or that it was added purely for shock factor. Way to really raise the bar there, guys. It’s the strangest, most off putting thing I’ve seen on Netflix, and I’ve seen some weird shit. At least when Game of Thrones hired Peter Dinklage, they made him a character – a major player with desires and goals. This guy shows up for a little bit to have the baby, then immediately dies. We’re willing to add a completely useless character to fill a quota, but we’re too lazy to think of a decent character for the little person we hired, let’s just kill him and get him out of the way after he freaks the audience. This ain’t some 19th century carnival show, it’s 2016. C’mon, that’s really fucked up.
The Rest was History
Medici isn’t the most interesting or revolutionary show, but it’s a show. The characters feel real and necessary, they have goals and the design of the show is pretty interesting. By the end of watching the first few episodes, I cared about the characters and was interested enough to want to watch more. After two episodes of Versailles, I had skin legions from scratching my head so hard, trying to figure out what the Hell they were thinking. Medici has it’s fault, but they’re not nearly as pronounced as Versailles. If you want to spend some time in the past, spend it in Italy rather than France this time.
But, as always, watch it for yourself. Take some time and check out both and see what you think. I know there’s lots of people that dig Versailles, so I’m sure I’m going to catch some flack again. You’re free to enjoy it, I’m the kind of person that likes BBC Sherlock. But I understand that the show has some serious problems, and acknowledging that, I can push through it and find something I like.
Medici gets three gilded coins out of five. Versailles barely makes one long-haired white guy out of five. And that’s being generous.