‘Dickinson’ Season 2: Creator on Emily’s dislike of fame


There’s no handbook that explains how to stay focused while working from home on a key project, during a pandemic, two days after an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

But Alena Smith managed the best she could.

Just before the return of “Dickinson,” Apple TV+’s quirky and audacious coming-of-age tale featuring 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson, creator and showrunner Alena Smith, like many Americans, watched the siege unfold on TV. And tweeted about it. And, because of it, she couldn’t exactly keep her attention on work, which included prepping for the premiere of Season 2 and working on the Civil War-set third season.

“Our whole lives now take place online. I’m not leaving my room. And I’m toggling back and forth between the insane events of our world and this launch of Season 2 that I’ve been waiting [on] for so long,” she said. “I just hope that for the people who are finding the show and enjoying it right now, that it’s some kind of balm. That’s kind of the most sustaining feeling right now: having a show that can be a kind of communal space.”

Since the show’s debut, Smith has said her goal with the anachronistic, sometimes hallucinogenic, comedy is to play with the details of Dickinson’s life, and the themes that emerged in her writings, to reflect on the realities of today. The events of 2020, she said, had an influence on Season 3, which was largely written during the summer and fall. (More on that later.) But for now, the show is focused on stardom.

The series, which features Hailee Steinfeld as the literary figure in her 20s, spent much of the first season exploring how patriarchy — mainly, the conservative views held by the poet’s father — stifled Emily’s aspirations to become a published writer. The second season considers how Emily’s ambivalence about fame may also have been a factor in why the majority of her work, now revered, dissected and sometimes memorialized in perfectly composed Instagram posts, was largely unpublished in her lifetime.

From her Los Angeles home, where she’s been riding out the COVID-19 pandemic with her husband and her 2 ½-year-old twins, Smith spoke over video conference about unpacking Dickinson using literary theory, challenging romance expectations and her favorite Dickinson poem.

The interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

A "Dickinson" poster

A “Dickinson” poster hangs in the home office of showrunner Alena Smith.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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