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July 31, 2020

Poetry in Motion

A creator’s unexpected take shakes up the life of Emily Dickinson.

Maria Neuman
  • Michael Parmelee

It doesn't take more than minutes to know that Dickinson isn't your usual period drama.

"This is bullshit," declares Hailee Steinfeld, who gives the 19th-century poet a Millennial twist. Add to that a soundtrack that ranges from Billie Eilish and A$AP Rocky to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and it's clear that Alena Smith, creator–executive producer of the Apple TV+ series, had an Emily in mind unlike any seen before.

"I always knew I wanted this to be a half-hour show and not a drama, because the structure of Emily's life is sort of a bleak comedy," Smith says. Dickinson never moved out of her father's home, and her sister discovered most of her almost 2,000 poems only after her death.

Having spent years researching the topic and trying to nail the tone, Smith decided on a modern take that's part tragedy and part comedy. She transforms the notion of a fragile and romantically depressed recluse into her own vision of a radical artist who's far ahead of her time.

The costumes and sets are period, but much of the rest is modern, including the lingo, house parties, twerking and even a romantic dalliance with her future sister-in-law, Sue (Ella Hunt). Rapper Wiz Khalifa plays the title character of one of Dickinson's more celebrated poems, "Because I could not stop for Death."

"What I've done here is turn literary theory into a televised dramatic event," Smith says.

After graduate work in writing at the Yale School of Drama, she worked in the New York theater scene for six years, then moved to Los Angeles to write for television in 2012.

Smith had the idea for an "experimental comedy about Emily Dickinson" the very next year, but jobs on HBO's The Newsroom and Showtime's The Affair kept her busy.

She ended up back on the East Coast to shoot Dickinson at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. "These days, the theater scene in New York has evolved to being a lot of people who work in television," she says, crediting new streaming options for a boom of varied and creative projects.

When season one of Dickinson dropped late last year, it was Smith's first outing as a showrunner — of one of the first shows on AppleTV+, no less. But that's not all: she gave birth to twins just five months before shooting started.

"Everything was happening for the first time. It's been absolutely psychotic," she says with a laugh.

With season two now in sight (it's expected this fall), things have calmed down.

"In season one, we were finding things for the first time, and with season two all of that work has been done," Smith says. "Now we just live in the reality the show has built. My goal is to use the 1850s as a stylized way of [reflecting on] how we live today."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2020

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