Dear “Dickinson” Showrunners, Please Make More TV About Dead Authors
7 more authors who deserve weird, sexy, anachronistic biographical shows
The early trailers for Dickinson, the heavily fictionalized Apple TV+ series based on the life of Emily Dickinson, left me baffled. Why is she in a plunging red satin dress? What is Jane Krakowski doing there? Was that a shot of Hailee Steinfeld covered in tattoos? Wiz Khalifa??? What is this show?
The answer, it turns out, is: it’s delightful. It’s a flippant take on Dickinson’s life that’s super queer, extremely fun, and somehow never disrespectful. The characters speak like they live in 2019. The Dickinson siblings throw a house party where everyone gets high on opium and Emily hallucinates a giant bee voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. Emily and her best friend/lover /future sister-in-law fuck to a Mitski song. John Mulaney guest-stars as Henry David Thoreau. Wiz Khalifa shows up occasionally as an extremely sexy personification of death, in a carriage drawn by spectral horses (Emily only busts out the red dress for these visits). This show, my friends, absolutely fucks. It’s a vital little adventure into the past, and a refreshing reminder that biopics don’t have to be staid slogs.
It’s such a pleasant surprise, in fact, that I couldn’t stop thinking about other authors whose life stories deserve the Dickinson treatment. I’m currently working on spec scripts for all of the following, so if you have an enormous amount of money and nothing to do with it, please call me immediately.
Synopsis: We follow Walt Whitman (Timothée Chalamet) through his early adulthood, as he tries to make ends meet with a combination of freelance writing, teaching, and ill-fated newspaper jobs. In his off hours, he brings a series of men back to his sparsely-furnished, questionably-legal loft apartment, furiously writing poetry as they sleep beside him. Frustrated at his lack of recognition and fresh off a peyote trip with friends at a popular sculpture park upstate, Whitman decides to self-publish Leaves of Grass, a move met with derision from his traditionally-published peers. Directed by Tanya Saracho.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: Perfume Genius’s “Queen” kicks in the first time someone recognizes Whitman from his engraving in the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass.
Synopsis: An office comedy set in the Random House offices during Toni Morrison’s (Viola Davis) time as an editor there in the 1960s and 1970s. Standard office drama ensues (from passive-aggressive wars over desk chairs to stolen lunches in the break room), with Morrison contributing cutting commentary directly to the audience. Directed by Lee Daniels.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: After successfully pushing for the publication of The Black Book over executive uncertainty, Morrison strides out of the office to SZA’s “Broken Clocks.”
“One of Us”
Synopsis: The town of Milledgeville, Georgia, is filled with weirdos, crackpots, and characters, and Flannery O’Connor (Ellie Kemper) is no exception. The show is a Letterkenny-style ensemble comedy (mostly live action with occasional animation in the style of O’Connor’s cartoons) anchored by O’Connor, whose ability to converse with birds isn’t even the most exceptional eccentricity in town. Though the town is rife with interpersonal drama and family secrets, a warped sense of camaraderie pervades, and when a killer known as The Misfit comes to town seeking his next victim, he’s run off by a motley crew of townsfolk, led by O’Connor’s trained peacocks. Directed by David Lynch.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: The drums on They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse in Your Soul” kick in as O’Connor throws open the front doors of her house and a frankly improbable number of birds spill out and take wing.
Synopsis: In 1920s Harlem, in the early stages of her literary career, Zora Neale Hurston’s (Tessa Thompson) friendship with Langston Hughes (Lakeith Stanfield) takes center stage among the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. The show focuses on Hurston and Hughes’s tempestous working relationship and rumored love triangle with Louise Thompson (Amandla Stenberg), their typist and collaborator on their doomed play, “Mule Bone.” Directed by Issa Rae.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: Hurston’s first gathering of writers and artists at her apartment is tracked to “L.E.S. Artistes” by Santigold.
Synopsis: A bawdy comedy about the misadventures of five monkeys in a doublet and cloak who’ve accidentally become a celebrated playwright. Calpurnia, Lysander, Dorcas, Ajax, and Bob, having escaped from a cruel life as animal actors, must work together to escape detection as they navigate Elizabethan London and the cut-throat theater scene. The primary antagonist is Christopher Marlowe (Adam DeVine), who suspects Will Shakespeare isn’t what he seems. Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: After a close run-in with Marlowe, the needle drops on “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” by The Beatles as our heroes escape into the bustling streets of London and the credits roll.
“No There There”
Synopsis: A Broad City-style stoner comedy about Gertrude Stein (Merritt Wever) and Alice B. Toklas (Jenny Slate), whose infamous pot brownies are the driving force behind Stein’s legendary literary salons. Turns out Hemingway is a lot more enjoyable when you’re high. Misadventures ensue, including a stoned outing to the Louvre that turns frantic when the group loses track of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Daniel Radcliffe), until he’s discovered near-catatonic behind the Winged Victory of Samothrace, muttering about boats and currents. Directed by Stephen Falk.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: Stein and Toklas attempt to perfect their brownie recipe in a montage set to “La Vie En Rose,” as covered by Lucy Dacus.
Synopsis: The show opens in Mary Godwin’s (Diana Silvers) late teenage years, in the early stages of her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Ezra Miller, sorry, I don’t make the rules). They meet secretly by night in the graveyard where her late mother is buried, in defiance of her father’s wishes. Though Mary never knew her mother, she has frequent conversations with her mother’s long-suffering, sardonic ghost (Kristen Bell). After Mary and Percy elope and run away to Europe, they form a polycule with a number of other writers and luminaries, including Lord Byron, who dismisses Percy’s writing with a hand-wave and a “Bysshe, please.” Directed by Madeleine Olnek.
Self-aware anachronistic music cue: Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” (honestly, what else) plays as Mary loses her virginity on her mother’s grave.