With the backstabbing and brutality of the returning HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," the even darker machinations of Showtime's "The Borgias" and the gangsters and their girls in Starz's "Magic City," period settings have become not just a way to relish vintage fashions and set dressing, but also a way to do the same with retrograde social attitudes and standards of living (and dying). Some of this is a side effect of the fact that these shows are all on cable, where the ability to push past broadcast-channel limitations on content sometimes also feels like a requirement, regardless of whether a show is set in Prohibition-era New Jersey or contemporary Albuquerque.
Does TV have a tendency to treat the gritty past as a kind of guilty pleasure, a chance and an excuse to indulge in the muck and murk? I'd argue yes, at least when those details overwhelm the main stuff of the narrative and characters. It's not for nothing that that first shot in the "Copper" pilot is of 1864 street beggars competing with animals for garbage scraps tossed out on the street while a man with a missing leg goes by on crutches -- it's not just to confirm the setting of "Gangs of New York"-era Manhattan, it's also to announce that things were really rough back then. In both "Copper" and "Hell on Wheels," set one year later out in the West, the women are mostly prostitutes, with the exception, in each show, of a young, blond widow whose outlier position allows her to move through the world of the show while maintaining a different social status. There aren't a lot of other opitions for women of the era in these kinds of rough-and-tumble stories.
We knew before Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) in "Boardwalk Empire" did that women would get the vote; we're aware that people are no longer hanged from lampposts in the middle of downtown New York because of the color of their skin the way that Dr. Freeman's (Essandoh) brothers-in-law were in "Copper." Their problems have parallels in the sexism and racism of modern day, but they're also, in their own way, escapist: Because they're so exaggerated, they take place at a comfortable distance from which we can both disapprove and file them away as dealt with long ago. These days we have running water and everyone can vote, hurray! (Well, except if you end up being suppressed by unfounded voter-fraud legislation, but knotty present-day realities like that are the reason we look to the 19th century for our entertainment.)
Even "Mad Men" started off flaunting its era specifics in its first season, laying on the constant smoking, the drinking, the chauvinism and the bigotry with a far heavier hand than would be used in the later episodes. Part of the establishing shock of the show was being able to giggle at the attitudes toward the workplace and women, comfortable in the knowledge that things aren't like that now.