In its latest attempt to establish itself in the premium cable game dominated by HBO and Showtime, Starz is betting on a female perspective to frame its upcoming costume drama, "The White Queen."
Perhaps inspired by the success of HBO's "Game of Thrones" and Showtime's "The Tudors," Starz partnered with BBC (which has already aired most of the first season) to examine the Plantagenets, a dynasty more or less passed over by popular culture. "The White Queen" enriches its history lessons with the sex and violence (and even a side of magic) that made its predecessors so appealing to modern, prestige drama audiences. "What's so interesting about it is the way it tells history from the point of view of the women, who are usually secondary characters in most big historical dramas," says Colin Callender, the show's executive producer.
The show's title refers to Elizabeth Woodville, a commoner who married King Edward IV in 1464 to great scandal and political cost. From there "The White Queen" expands to the matriarchs of the other families fighting for the British throne during the War of the Roses.
"It's tremendously important to actually excavate those stories and to recognize that these women were real players. They weren't just passive, faceless, voiceless women who didn't do anything," says Emma Frost, a lead writer of the show, adding, "We don't have enough strong, female role models on TV."
The show is based on author Philippa Gregory's beloved "The Cousins' War" series, specifically on "The White Queen," "The Red Queen," and "The Kingmaker's Daughter." In addition to Elizabeth, the show follows Margaret Beaufort, whose son grows up to become King Henry VII and Anne Neville, the daughter of Edward's chief political adviser with royal ambitions of his own.
"Philippa has found these women who are completely passed over." Frost says. "We all think of history as the truth. Actually, history is just what got written down, and what got written down is usually written down by men."
"The White Queen" is fashioned as a medieval soap opera in the hopes to make history relatable to 21st century viewers (and it helps that Gregory's meticulously researched novels are known for being extremely accessible and entertaining.)
Frost says she approached Gregory's novels like fiction and adds, "We didn't want to put a dead hand of old fashioned language on it. The language is quite fresh and immediate, so people don't feel that there's a barrier between them and the show."
Nevertheless, some of the plotlines may rub modern audiences the wrong way. An attempted rape in the first episode caused controversy when it aired in the U.K. and stirred a defense from the show's producers.
Other aspects benefit from a modern light, like Margaret's constant fasting, driven by her religious fervor.
"Her fasting is something in a religious context that's harder for us to understand," Frost says. "For me it made her accessible to filter that idea through the lens of it being an eating disorder."
"The White Queen" debuted on BBC1 earlier this summer to a strong 5.3 million audience (it has eventually tapered down to about half that). Critical reception was less successful, with reviewers particularly harsh on the production's historical inaccuracies (think zippers and drain pipes).
So far, reviews by American critics have been friendlier, ranging from lukewarm to approving. It was also reported that the American cut included longer sex scenes with more nudity. "You get a lot more arse in the Starz version—the cameras kept rolling after the BBC stopped the scene," star Max Irons told a British newspaper, though the producers downplay the changes.
"There's more nudity in Anthony's Weiner's inbox than there is in the entire series of 'The White Queen,'" Callender insists. Frost estimated the changes only amount to 20-30 seconds in each episode, acknowledging, "There were just certain aspects of nudity that the BBC wouldn't show but that work very well for Starz."
"The White Queen" premieres just as Starz has announced the cancellation of another of its glossy series, "Magic City," a "Sopranos"-like drama set in 1950s Miami. Nevertheless, Starz CEO Chris Albrecht told reporters at Television Critics Association press tour that the channel intended to have 50 hours of original programming by 2014.
"All the pay channels are looking for shows that have a distinct voice and vision," says Callender, who, as an exec at HBO from 1999-2009, oversaw its ascension. "That this is history told from the point of view of a woman was an attractive point of view for Starz."