Hailee Steinfeld (standing center with arm raised) stars in Dickinson; the cast — here costumed for Shakespeare club — also includes (standing, from left ) Adrian Blake Enscoe, Samuel Farnsworth, Sophie Zucker, Gus Birney, Allegra Heart and (seated) Anna Baryshnikov and Gus Halper with (kneeling, far right) Kevin Yee.
It seems highly unlikely that the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson ever called guys "dudes."
Or that she and novelist Louisa May Alcott once went for "a run" before supper. Or that she embroidered "F*** My Life" into her needlepoint.
But in the Apple TV+ comedy Dickinson — from creator–writer– executive producer Alena Smith — she does all that and more.
This young, spunky Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is freshly imagined with a Victorian wardrobe and a contemporary sensibility. She gamely winches up her heavy floor-length skirt to boogie across a field with Alcott. Her satisfaction from stringing poetic words together prompts her to jump on her four-poster bed and rock out to electro-punk music. And when she's feeling awestruck, she blurts out the modern slang term "sick."
The first season, which won a Peabody Award, also depicted her as a progressive thinker who writes poetry against her father's objections and chafes against the societal restrictions imposed on women in the mid-1800s. "Who cares about an election? We can't even vote," she grumbles on an election day.
The second season, premiering January 8, builds on those themes while expanding her world. "It's also about how Emily deals with fame," says Stacie Passon, one of the series' directors, "and what fame does to an artist."
Dickinson only became widely known after death. She left behind almost 2,000 poems, having allowed just 10 to be published during her lifetime. Ever more reclusive as she aged, she eventually spoke to most visitors while hidden behind a door. Her sexuality and intimate relations similarly remain shrouded in mystery, though some scholars suggest she was in love with her sister-in-law. This production explores that gray area.
"To me, it's Emily Dickinson imagined as a rebellious goth teenager who is potentially queer or bisexual," says director Silas Howard, who, like Passon, worked on seasons one and two. "Also what I think this show does well," he says, "is draw parallels to things that are still happening today."
In one of the episodes he directed, "I am afraid to own a Body" (all episode titles are drawn from Dickinson poetry), Dickinson and her peers, rehearsing Shakespeare's Othello, stake out gender-reversal roles. Emily assumes Iago. Her brother plays Desdemona. Howard sat the cast down ahead of time to ensure that the humor landed in the right spots. "I didn't want an actor playing a female role as a joke. We're not doing that."
Racism glides into view when Emily awkwardly attempts to recruit her father's worker, Henry, to play Othello. Henry demurs. As a Black man in this pre-Civil War period, he knows what's at stake if viewed as overstepping his place, a tension that's further explored in season two.
"I love the stories that take a risk," Howard says, "and go into uncomfortable moments that are not wrapped up with a bow."
For Passon, "The show definitely reflects some of the political struggles that we are all dealing with now."
Case in point: she directed a mischievous scene in which Alcott — who hasn't yet written the hugely popular Little Women — comes for dinner at the Dickinsons' house. Alcott (Zosia Mamet) begins musing aloud about her concept for a female-centric family story. "Just a bunch of sisters and their mom," she remarks at the dinner table.
"Oh, that doesn't sound like a hit," another guest observes.
Passon laughs. "It's a terrific commentary on all women artists and their struggle to find stories that the general public finds relevant."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, 2020