This year’s TV comedies have shown that period pieces aren’t just about petticoats and pretentiousness.
Some shows, including Apple TV Plus’ “Dickinson” and Hulu’s “The Great,” use language and tone to put modern twists on what can be a stilted genre, while others from Showtime’s “Black Monday” to Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” are infused with references from their time periods that feel highly relevant to today’s audience.
When Alena Smith wrote the pilot for “Dickinson” what flowed from her quill (or, keyboard) was a straightforward period drama. But that is far from the show she ended up delivering. Instead, she struck a balance between the 19th Century language and setting that came easily to her after growing up reading “Little Women” and “Anne of Green Gables,” and the comedy that came from the titular iconic poet’s (played by Hailee Steinfeld) more modern attitude about being trapped within a suffocating society.
“One of the things that I’ve discovered is that it’s incredibly hard to be funny in a period voice,” Smith says. “Dickinson herself was a radical artist who was not well understood or appreciated in her own time. She was a mind ahead of her time, or out of her own time, and [using more contemporary language] gives us the opportunity to say, ‘Can she make sense to us in our time?’”
“Dickinson” is crammed full of anachronisms, from the dialogue to the music, and even the dance moves. But the characters only speak in a contemporary fashion when they are rebelling against the expectations of society and the patriarchy in particular, Smith notes. Therefore, characters such as Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) never venture into contemporary witticisms, which Smith says is a sign that they are enabling the backward thinking of the period.
In the case of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Great,” comedy comes from a similar place. In the former, the titular Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) speaks with a candor and boldness that feels ahead of her time; it’s what leads her to be a successful comedian, while the Maisels and the Weissmans are also stuck in their ways and fail to understand Midge’s career or her views of a woman’s place in society.
For “The Great,” creator and showrunner Tony McNamara also wanted to “play with hybridizing language and tone” on his 18th century Russia-set streaming series because he “didn’t want it to feel like we were looking back at people, at their lives and how they lived,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like the problems they had were as present as our problems every day. The only difference being that we get in a car after we’ve had to fight with our wife or husband, and they get in a carriage.”
McNamara honed such hybridization when writing the 2018 feature film “The Favourite,” and he points out that it is impossible to know how real historical figures (in this case Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult’s Peter III of Russia) actually spoke, which opens the door for a wildly imaginative re-telling.
“You can look at portraits of people from back then and guess how they looked, but we were asking things like, ‘Did they always wear buttoned-up shirts? Weren’t they like us, slobbing around half the time?’ We were always trying to twist, to make it feel very present and speak in a language we felt like our generation, our contemporary society would understand,” McNamara explains. “We never wanted the language to feel like a barrier.”
For David Caspe and Jordan Cahan, who co-created and run “Black Monday,” the specific language of the late-1980s Wall Street world they are capturing might not be completely foreign to viewers. Many remember the slang of that decade extremely well, including slurs and insults bandied about in high-stress situations that would be actionable offenses now.
“The attitude of ‘Never admit weakness, never admit you’re wrong and always punch back harder than you get punched’ feels like a very ’80s ethos for a certain sect of that society,” says Cahan. “It seems like we’ve evolved from that, but every time you think the glass ceiling is getting broken or things are about to change, it takes a whole lot longer than you thought.”
But, the trader jargon is a much more niche piece of language, for which the producers often rely on Caspe’s father, who actually did work as a trader in Chicago years ago.
The key to successfully creating a lexicon for all of these series is attention to detail of the world of these specific shows, regardless of what the time periods depicted sounded like in other pieces of media.
“I don’t ever want people getting jarred out of the grounded circumstances and stakes of the character,” says Smith. “I would hate a joke that made you stop believing that you were in the room with the Dickinsons. It all has to be coming from a really emotionally truthful place because I’m creating an imaginary world where this is just how people talk.”