Stuffy? Hardly. How ‘Dickinson’ and others blew up the period piece
History tends to follow a singular narrative. What’s written in history books and what’s adapted to the screen often reflect that limited perspective. (It can also be stuffy and serious and totally boring.) Which explains the rise of a more whimsical approach: From last year’s awards darling “The Favourite” and the Broadway sensation “Hamilton” to Comedy Central’s popular series “Drunk History” and the new Apple TV+ show “Dickinson,” it seems history is ready for a remix.
In “Dickinson,” the standout of Apple’s launch slate, creator Alena Smith reimagines the life and time of Emily Dickinson using modern language, music and attitudes in a period setting to comment on the similarities between the issues facing the country in the 1850s and those it faces today. As the show unfolds, the defiant, funny poetess (Hailee Steinfeld) throws house parties and curses at her parents. She’s visited by Death, played by rapper Wiz Khalifa, and there’s a general sense of levity, though the series also tackles subjects like white supremacy and female subjugation.
“Dickinson” from Apple TV+ is a pointed love letter to an American icon, rebel spirit fully intact.
“The truth is that the choice to make a period show was a way of writing a stylized version of the present,” says Smith, who studied Dickinson for years while developing the series, which has been renewed for a second season. “Why Emily Dickinson works as a figure to put at the center of this type of style is because Emily Dickinson was an artist who was ahead of her time and did not follow all the rules of her time and was certainly not appreciated in her time.”
She adds, “I always was trying to create this uncanny blur between present and past so that you’d almost lose track of which one you were in.”
The first season of “Dickinson,” now streaming in full on Apple TV+, had already finished production when “The Favourite,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ quirky take on Queen Anne, arrived in theaters last year. Written by Lanthimos, Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis, the historical film defied the traditional confines of a period drama. It may have looked period, but it certainly didn’t feel it. McNamara, who is creating another whimsical period piece about Catherine the Great for Hulu, took Davis’ initial script and brought in clever dialogue and a modern-day sensibility.
“I remember Yorgos saying in a meeting, ‘Anyone who comes to this movie looking for a history lesson is in the wrong movie,’” McNamara told the Times last year. “Often in period things the details drag the story down. The slavishness to the detail, the slavishness to the truth of it. … We wanted to strip the history and just serve the story of three complicated women in a world where the men were struggling for traction. If we had a problem, we would go, ‘What actually happened?’ If history helped us, it was good, and if it didn’t, it wasn’t that good.”
There’s a similar idea behind “Drunk History,” which will air its seventh season on Comedy Central next year, and the sadly short-lived “Another Period,” a high-energy comedy set in Rhode Island during the Gilded Age. Both shows reflect on the events of the past in a humorous way, in part for entertainment value and in part to make a point about our lives now. For creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome, “Another Period” was a lighthearted way to consider contemporary feminism.
“Comedy about the past is mostly funny when it shows us how little we’ve changed,” says Lindhome. “‘Another Period’ takes place 20 years before women’s suffrage. We thought it would be funny if we played vehement anti-suffragists. Our characters never saw the irony in us going to protests to make our opinions known about not wanting the right to an opinion.”
Leggero adds, “History can feel like a ‘thing that happened then to them,’ but really the only difference between Trump and Teddy Roosevelt was eyewear. And a coherent vision of the unity of the United States. And public speaking skills. And cognitive ability. But I think they both did have a pee tape.”
Similarly, Steinfeld writes via email, while the limitations placed on women in the world of “Dickinson” may seem extreme — corsets, housekeeping — they throw our own society’s limitations into sharp relief: “[I]t’s interesting to see how some of those constraints and ideas are still prevalent today and how much work we, as a society, still have to do when it comes to equality and women’s rights especially.
The common thread among all of these historical remixes is that each highlights the perspective of previously marginalized figures. Comedy can bring experiences that have been long ignored to the forefront. “The Favourite” centers on three women, casting the male characters to the sidelines, and “Drunk History” has evolved into a series about untold stories, often focusing on historical figures who weren’t powerful white men. Derek Waters, who created the series with Jeremy Konner, wants to emphasize narratives that weren’t taught to us in school.
“It’s a lot easier to hear a story that maybe has a lot of racism or sexism or anything that is a heavy subject when it’s taught in a modern way,” Waters notes. “I am doing my best to humanize these times and make you go, ‘I’m laughing, but I’m also realizing that was a terrible thing that happened many years ago.’ I think it’s a lot easier to listen when you’re smiling.”
Apple TV+ has no library of beloved movies and TV shows. Instead, the tech giant hopes its original programming is enough to ensure “wild success.”
With “Dickinson,” modern cultural references — Billie Eilish on the soundtrack, slang in the scripts — help avoid any disconnect between then and now. Indeed, while writing “Dickinson,” Smith stuck a quote from James Baldwin over her desk: “History is not past, it is present.”
“I do think there’s obviously some kind of cultural zeitgeist where people are wanting to restage history in this way,” Smith says. “We’re putting different people at the center of the narrative. History is a narrative, right? And all narratives have their own agendas and their own ideologies. … We need a different history to push off of and understand who we are and how we got here.”
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