26 TV dramas based on true stories, from It's A Sin to Special

Best TV dramas based on true stories: 26 brilliant series to watch, from It's A Sin to Special

Posted by and for TV

Amazing true stories make for great TV, so we’ve picked out the best shows inspired by real-life and historical events.

Sometimes, the best stories are those rooted in true life drama. This year has seen some amazing TV already, with so much of it inspired by real-life stories – from Channel 4’s It’s A Sin to the return of Netflix’s Special.

As if the world hasn’t seen enough of it’s own twists and turns in the last year, we can’t help but be drawn to the small-screen stories that have had some root in a true story.

It’s a theme that seems set to continue, as many of 2021’s must-watch series (think Sky’s Landscapers and Inventing Anna) are all born from real-life events, too.

Looking to lose yourself in some truly immersive drama? Here’s an exhaustive list of TV must-sees.

Special

The tale of a man with cerebral palsy reaching out of his insular existence to live a more daring life is based on show writer Ryan O’Connell’s 2015 memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.

O’Connell also plays a version of himself in the show, with various storylines created from his own experiences.

Special’s second season was released in May, starring Jessica Hecht (of Friends, Breaking Bad and Succession fame) and Better Call Saul’s Patrick Fabian.

The Pembrokeshire Murders

Adapted from true-crime book Catching The Bullseye Killer, the three-part mini-series sees newly promoted Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins (played by Luke Evans, who you may recognise as having played Gaston in the live-action remake of Beauty And The Beast) set himself the mission of reopening two unsolved double murders from the 1980s.

The Serpent 

the serpent bbc
The Serpent is now streaming on Netflix.

This eight-part BBC series is based on the incredible true story of how international serial killer Charles Sobhraj (who acquired creative nicknames, such as “The Serpent” and “The Bikini Killer”) was captured and put on trial in the 1970s. 

It’s A Sin

Russell T Davies’ five-episode drama touches and breaks the hearts of all who watch it, telling the story of a group of young friends who become embroiled in the HIV/Aids epidemic as it sweeps throughout London in the 1980s.

Starring musician Olly Alexander – with appearances from Keeley Hawes and Stephen Fry – It’s A Sin is based on Davies’ experiences of the Aids crisis, with one character being based on a close friend of his during that time, Jill.

The best part? Real-life Jill makes an appearance as the mother of the character that she inspired, who is also her namesake.

Quiz

A series of well-timed coughs was all it took to pull off one of TV’s most audacious heists, as ITV’s star-studded Quiz makes all too clear. 

Based on real-life events, it tells the story of British army major Charles Ingram, who landed the coveted £1 million jackpot on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? 

He never collected the prize, though, instead ending up on trial at Southwark Crown Court for deception. And this critically acclaimed miniseries takes us on that journey, right from the very first cough to the verdict itself.

Chernobyl

Chernobyl Emily Watson
In Chernobyl, Emily Watson plays Ulana Khomyuk, a Soviet nuclear physicist committed to solving the mystery of what led to the disaster.

Historical drama Chernobyl has been dubbed one of the “greatest TV shows of all time”, telling “the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and tells of the brave men and women who sacrificed themselves to save Europe from unimaginable disaster.”

For those who have yet to see the five-part miniseries, it takes us back to 25 April 1986, when a routine safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine turns catastrophic as a reactor explodes.

 Cue an unprecedented spike in levels of radiation contamination in the surrounding region, the Soviet Union attempting to withhold as much information about the disaster as possible, and officials even knowingly delayingly the evacuation of nearby citizens.

A Very British Scandal

Boasting a cool 97% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, A Very British Scandal tells the tale of Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), a politician who tries to get his former lover, Norman (Ben Whishaw), murdered for fear he may end his political career. However, Thorpe faces trial when Norman gets out alive and reports the crime.

When They See Us

Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us
Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us

Ava DuVernay’s powerful When They See Us dramatises the true story of the Central Park Five, five boys who were wrongfully convicted of rape and assault in 1990 and spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit as a result of police corruption and racism.

White House Farm

It’s the ITV drama that blew us away in the heady pre-Covid winter of 2020, telling the true story of one night in August 1985, when five members of the same family were murdered at an Essex farmhouse. 

Seven Seconds

Thanks to her breathtaking performance as Seven Seconds’ Latrice Butler, Regina King walked away with the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series.

For those who have yet to see the limited series, it focuses on the hit-and-run of a Black teenager from Jersey City by a white police officer, as well as the subsequent coverup, its aftermath, and the trial of the century.

And, as such, it tackles the controversial issues of race relations between law enforcement, the people they serve, and the personal stories of those involved.

Alias Grace

Alias Grace is a six-hour miniseries based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel of the same name. It tells the tale of Grace Marks, a poor Irish immigrant to Canada who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. 

And, as gripping as it is terrifying, we have a feeling the show will definitely please fans of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Mrs America

Mrs America: Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus
Mrs America: Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus.

Set in the 1970s, the exceedingly popular Mrs America sees Cate Blanchett step into the shoes of anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly. As in, yes, the longtime religious right activist who successfully led the effort to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Who advocated “traditional” roles for women in American society. And who’s the likely inspiration for Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Call The Midwife

Based on Jennifer Worth’s Call The Midwife: A True Story Of The East End In The 1950s, this long-running period drama is every bit as cosy as it is thought-provoking. All about hope and sisterhood, it deals with big, bold, thought-provoking storylines – including the thalidomide scandal of the 1960s, female genital mutilation, domestic violence, rape, illegal abortions, contraception, and homophobia – and throws in some gorgeous vintage costumes, too. What’s not to love?

Mindhunter

Catching a criminal often requires the authorities to get inside the villain’s mind, and that’s the job of Mindhunter’s Holden Ford (Hamilton’s Jonathan Groff). A pioneer in the disturbing field of psychological profiling, the tenacious FBI agent interviews psychopaths in a bid to predict their next moves. And his persistence to get close to these criminals makes for scenes that are the perfectly skin-crawling mix of hard to watch and equally hard to look away from – particularly as they’re all inspired by real-life murderers.

Dickinson

Dickinson Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa
Dickinson: Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa in the AppleTV+ series.

Offering up a very different perspective on Emily Dickinson – who has traditionally been portrayed as a shy New England recluse – Apple TV’s Dickinson sees the poet (played by Hailee Steinfeld) rebelling against the constraints of society, gender and family in a very millennial way. That is to say, by way of parties, clapbacks, and a secret rendezvous in a carriage. Epic.

Wolf Hall

Yet another period drama that’s been lauded by critics, Wolf Hall (an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s book of the same name) follows the story of Thomas Cromwell through his rise in social hierarchy. From his humble beginnings as a blacksmith’s son, Cromwell becomes King Henry VIII’s chief minister, which means he later plays an important role in the king’s ill-fated marriage to one Anne Boleyn. And, yeah, you better believe our beloved Claire Foy plays the role of the 1,000 day queen with aplomb!

American Crime Story: The Assassination Of Gianni Versace

Gianni Versace was shot and killed outside his Miami Beach mansion on 15 July 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who was named one of the FBI’s Most Wanted after murdering at least five people during a three-month-killing spree. 

Eight days after Versace’s death, Cunanan fatally shot himself with the same gun. 

To this day, his motives for the murder remain unclear; at the time, police famously told the public they “don’t know that we are ever going to know the answers”. But this series of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story (which boasts the acting talents of Penelope Cruz, Ricky Martin, Edgar Ramirez, and Darren Criss) aims to shed further light on the killing, using Maureen Orth’s 1999 book, Vulgar Favours, as the primary source material.

Narcos

This Netflix series chronicles the rise of the cocaine trade in Colombia and the gripping real-life stories of drug kingpins of the late ‘80s in this raw, gritty original series. Also detailed are the actions taken by law enforcement as they battle in the war on drugs, targeting notorious and powerful figures that include drug lord Pablo Escobar. As efforts are made to control cocaine, one of the world’s most valuable commodities, the many entities involved – legal, political, police, military and civilian – find themselves in conflict.

Unbelievable

An Unbelievable Story of Rape, the Pulitzer Prize-winning article chronicling the real-life trauma and resilience of a teenage girl named Marie, was powerfully serialised by Netflix in 2019, inspiring a wave of conversation about the treatment of women and girls in the criminal justice system. 

Unorthodox

Based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, the critically acclaimed Unorthodox tells the story of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman Esther Shapiro (Shira Haas), who flees her arranged marriage that sours as she struggles to consummate the relationship and produce a baby.

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

Best ever period dramas streaming now
Octavia Spencer and Blair Underwood star in Self-Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C. J. Walker.

Self-Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C. J. Walker brings the inspiring true story of trailblazing African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) to our screens for the first time.

For those who don’t know the name, Walker is the very same woman who built the haircare empire that made her America’s first female self-made millionaire. So, yeah, you better believe that this Netflix series is going to deliver some seriously inspiring energy.

Orange Is The New Black

The first-ever Netflix Original series, Orange Is The New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison.

Escape At Dannemora

A favourite of Stylist’s Steven Cowan, Escape At Dannemora takes us inside the Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. There, two inmates become entangled in the life of a married female prison employee in the summer of 2015. And it’s not long before Tilly Mitchell decides to aid in their escape from the facility…

The Act

This stranger-than-fiction true-crime series is based on a 2016 BuzzFeed article, which detailed the shocking story of Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) and her daughter, Gypsy (Joey King).

To those who knew the pair before the act to which the show’s title refers, Dee Dee appeared to be a doting single mother to Gypsy, who she said was chronically ill, with a litany of issues that began when she was a baby. In 2015, though, Dee Dee was found dead and Gypsy was nowhere to be found. But, as people worried for the young girl’s safety, a darker truth was soon unveiled…

Small Axe

Small Axe, an anthology of five films from writer and director Steve McQueen, takes its title from a West Indian proverb about collective struggle (“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”), and encompasses true stories from the late 60s to the mid-80s. And, yes, we’re here to tell you that it has easily proven to be one of the most transfixing series we’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.

Des

Known as the “Muswell Hill Murderer” and the “Kindly Killer”, Dennis Nilsen (David Tennant) murdered at least 15 men and boys between 1978 and 1983. ITV’s true crime series, though, does not depict any of Nilsen’s murderous acts on screen.

Instead, Des picks up shortly before Nilsen’s arrest in February 1983, and explores “how a man like Nilsen was able to prey on the young and vulnerable in 1980s Britain.”

As per ITV’s description: “The series not only highlights the police investigation and trial but also the effect of the media coverage on public perceptions of the victims at the time, raising questions of just how far have we really come since then.”

The Great

Channel 4’s deliciously sardonic The Great is, surprise, all about Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning). As in, yes, the longest-reigning female ruler in Russian history. But, while we may think we know everything there is to know about the so-called “Messalina of the Neva”, this show winds things back to when she was just Catherine the Teenage Outsider, shipped into a strange country for an arranged – and extremely ill-fated – marriage to Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult).

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Images: Netflix/BBC/ITV/Channel 4/Apple

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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