‘Dickinson’ Showrunner Says She Felt ‘Actively Gaslit’ by Apple

Alena Smith reflects on creating a comedy centered on “an unapologetic, queer female lead” at a time when streamers weren’t “using profit as their bottom line”

Haleigh Steinfeld in "Dickinson" (Apple TV+)
Haleigh Steinfeld in "Dickinson" (Apple TV+)

“Dickinson” showrunner Alena Smith detailed the challenges of making the Apple TV+ period drama show starring Hailee Steinfeld as its queer female lead, playing poet Emily Dickinson. Apple kept her in the dark about the show’s success, Smith said, which made creating the show significantly more difficult.

The first season of the series arrived on the streamer in 2019, the second one on Jan. 8, 2021. Season 3 concluded the arc Smith envisioned for the project and came out Nov. 5, 2021.

Describing what drove streaming services to make creative projects, Smith explained to Harper’s Magazine that streamers were looking to grow their subscriber numbers by taking big creative swings that pulled in new audiences.

“It’s like a whole world of intellectuals and artists got a multibillion-dollar grant from the tech world,” Smith said. “But we mistook that, and were frankly actively gaslit into thinking that that was because they cared about art.”

Before she knew whether the show would get a second season, she was tasked with developing Season 2 on spec.

“It was communicated to me,” Smith said, “that my only choice to keep the show alive was to begin all over again and write a whole new season without a green-light guarantee. So I was expected to take on that risk, when the entities that stood to profit the most from the success of my creative labor, the platform and studio, would not risk a dime.”

It also fell to Smith to encourage everyone else involved in the making of the series that they would be returning for consecutive seasons. Two weeks into production on Season 2, the show debuted as one of the streamer’s four original series to immediate acclaim.

“I was only allowed to make the show to the extent that I was willing to take on unbelievable amounts of risk and labor on my own body perpetually, without ceasing, for years,” she said. “And I knew that if I ever stopped, the show would die.”

Because the streamer wouldn’t share viewership data with her, she decided to tell them she was done in 2020 after three seasons, and they accepted it.

Smith compared the “high barrier of entry” for her idea because of the show featuring Dickinson’s “hard-to-understand” poetry, versus the making of “I Love Dick,” a small-press book by Chris Kraus that was adapted into a Prime Video series in 2016.

“That doesn’t happen because people are using profit as their bottom line,” Smith said.

She described Apple’s guidelines for what they wanted from series as unclear, thanks to a “radical information asymmetry” when it came to management’s priorities and metrics.

She and her colleagues’ requests for a timeline and premiere date for the show after production on the first season was complete went ignored, leading Smith to worry that the platform might trash the show entirely. She wasn’t given a copy of the finished project, which existed on Apple’s servers as their property.


2 responses to “‘Dickinson’ Showrunner Says She Felt ‘Actively Gaslit’ by Apple”

  1. Ian Avatar

    It’s frustrating how opaque every streamer is about popularity and metrics for success, even though Apple takes that to an extreme. 

    With networks you would see ratings data and you knew if a show needed an extra “something” to not get cancelled (awards, fan campaigns etc) or at least if the end was inevitable. That goes for everyone working on it as well as watching it. Now, no one knows and there’s so much content it all gets lost anyway. 

  2. source Avatar

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