Dead Poet’s Society

There is no poet like Emily Dickinson, and no series like Dickinson, which brings rap, witchcraft and millennial slang to the 19th century writer’s tale.

“One of the reasons why the show is called Dickinson is that it’s about the patriarchy,” says its creator and showrunner Alena Smith. “It’s about a woman who resisted the patriarchy insofar as she did not get married and have kids and do those things she was expected to do.”

But that meant the titular Dickinson – Emily, the godmother of American poetry – lived her whole life under her father’s roof, with her father’s name, and Smith’s series underlines this irony. When Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss, Halt and Catch Fire) declares that his ambitious daughter is ruining the family name, the joke’s on him. Emily (as reimagined by Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit) is the only reason anyone remembers it.

A coming-of-age comedy and drama, Dickinson finds the reclusive yet rebellious young writer in her salad days. Set in bucolic Amherst, Massachusetts, it illuminates the literary ambitions and stifled sexuality that saw Dickinson dismissed as eccentric in her own lifetime, and several beyond. This judgement endures in the popular notion of Emily Dickinson as the hermit spinster, but Smith’s playful approach to the biopic uses humour, hindsight and horniness to redress the poet’s enigmatic legacy.

“The show definitely creates its own voice, in the spirit of Emily Dickinson herself,” says Smith. A playwright by trade, Smith first encountered Dickinson’s work in high school. In her early twenties, she read a Dickinson biography and clicked with the major themes of Emily’s life. “I love thinking about her connection to bees and birds and flowers, as well as her wrestling with, you know, this consciousness of death,” Smith says. “She was basically an outsider artist. She made her own rules…lived by her own code and, in a weird way, also invented a code. Her poems are written like a secret code, and it’s really fun to dig into that.”

Smith is also fascinated by “the material realities of Dickinson’s work,” like the little books of poetry she hand‑sewed. “She kind of invented the zine!” Smith beams. “All those things drew me to her and made me want to make a show about her,” she says. In 2019, Dickinson debuted on Apple TV+, and now the fruits of Smith’s labour are ripening for season two on the platform.

But this is not your nanna’s period drama. While Smith was entranced by the visual and sensory details of Emily’s oeuvre, she also saw scope for a more “metaphoric project”. Stylistically and spiritually, the show taps into the Gen Z internet ecosystem that exalts witchcraft, astrology, séances and “cottagecore” looks. If anything, Dickinson is a crystal ball, in which the 1850s presage the present day.

“It was always the plan that the show would look like a beautiful, elevated period show but there would be a hybrid quality to the dialogue,” says Smith. Just as the real Dickinson’s work was ahead of its time, Steinfeld’s Emily uses millennial slang and swears. She’s agitated by similar concerns to Nadine – Steinfeld’s old-soul adolescent in The Edge of Seventeen (2016) – only Emily does opium, not alcohol, at parties, while her frenemies krump in their crinolines to Carnage’s trap single ‘I Like Tuh’.

Hip-hop is an anachronism deftly deployed. On the soundtrack, Lizzo and A$AP Rocky bring contemporary cred while underscoring their medium’s clear links to poetry. Emily and her coquettish sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) rave for Shakespeare and Dickens like they’re modern pop stars. And in a deliciously morbid turn, rapper Wiz Khalifa guests as Death personified. His lavish carriage kindly stops for Emily whene’er she has a midnight crisis.

“If there’s anything I’m committed to as an artist, it’s probably surrealism,” says Smith, and flourishes like the show’s curious cameos prove it. In season one, Girls’ Zosia Mamet plays Louisa May Alcott – at least, a boss-babe version betrothed to the freelance hustle. Comedian John Mulaney appears topless as philosopher Henry David Thoreau, petulant and leeching off his family. These literary icons “wink at the audience,” says Smith. Though they never met Dickinson in real life, they “come into our world because they have lessons to teach Emily” on screen.

This season, as the aspiring writer wrestles with fame’s allure, she meets the landscape architect who designed New York’s Central Park – Frederick Law Olmsted (Timothy Simons, Veep) – who helps her contemplate the long game. By contrast, the thirsty ghost of Edgar Allan Poe – revivified with exquisite sleaze by Nick Kroll (Big Mouth) – rides along in Death’s carriage, cruising for groupies, pining for his “cousin slash child bride”.

“Those are exaggerations or caricatures of seeds that are true about historical figures,” Smith explains. “That’s such a fun game to play, to pick up any box of history and ask, ‘What’s inside that might speak to us and the way that we’re living today?’

“It’s also acknowledging that we all live online,” she adds. “We all live in a Wikipedia-verse where everything is laid out in front of us [but] the facts can get decontextualised.”

While these tongue-in-cheek renderings pull at threads in the historical record, it’s Dickinson’s mix of both comedy and tragedy that reveals the hardest truths about white men deemed geniuses, and life in an era that demeaned women, queer folk and people of colour – at a time when death and disease were rampant. “The parallels between the 1850s and today can almost become too much to handle,” Smith admits.

“We were in our Zoom writers’ room for season three this summer, all trapped in a pandemic, writing about the Civil War when people outside were tearing down Confederate monuments.

“But I consider it a privilege to tell a story that’s shaking up ideas about history. If America doesn’t start confronting its own history in a more honest and authentic way, we’re not going to be able to move into the future.

“Culture right now is a giant conversation,” she says. “To be a good conversationalist, you need to talk, but you also need to listen.” She hopes the show adds to cultural discourse, stirs viewers to respond, and maybe even inspires people to make art themselves.

“The other day, I went on TikTok and searched for Dickinson and saw a bunch of awesome memes that fans were making,” she says. The show’s romantic arc between Emily and her best friend turned sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt, Cold Feet) evokes particularly personal responses in the online #EmiSue fandom.

“All of us have an artist inside that wants to be heard and wants to connect,” says Smith. “We use stories to understand ourselves. That’s why representation matters, that’s why inclusivity matters – so people who see themselves in those stories will be able to use them as guides.

“Actually, there’s a really beautiful Dickinson quote about that,” she says. “‘The Poets light but lamps,’” meaning they bring a little sparkle to the darkness.

By Aimee Knight, Small Screens Editor for The Big Issue.

Dickinson seasion 3 is on Apple TV+ from 5 November.

First published in ed#629.