‘Another Period’s Third Season Dives into the Origins of Celebrity Feminism
It’s been a year and a half since the second season of Another Period ended, so there’s a great deal to catch up on. Set in the first decade of the 20th century, Another Period focuses primarily on Lillian and Beatrice Bellacourt, played respectively by series creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome. The two are wealthy and idle, living in their castle in Newport, Rhode Island and rarely contributing much to the world. For most of the series’s first season, the two were obsessed with joining high society. By the end of that season, they began to realize that high society was meaningless compared to a superior aspiration: fame. The second season had the Bellacourt sisters attempting various schemes to achieve fame (beginning with consulting Harriet Tubman on how she achieved her fame). By the season’s end, they’d all but abandoned these dreams: Beatrice nearly killed Lillian in a bar fight and then revived her with piles of cash stolen from the church where Beatrice had become a nun. The new season continues the show’s string of madcap adventures through history, but recalibrates Lillian and Beatrice’s dreams somewhat: this season, they realize that they can find celebrity through leading the feminist movement.
The satire of Another Period is multifaceted. It is superficially a parody of Downton Abbey, particularly in the characterization of Mr. Peepers, played by Michael Ian Black. Peepers is absurdly devoted to Bellacourt Manor and to the Bellacourt sisters’ mother, Lady Dodo (Paget Brewster). No matter how much abuse the staff receives from the Bellacourts, Peepers insists that serving them is an honor and a privilege. When a new maid (played by Christina Hendricks) is hired, her name is swiftly changed from “Celine” to “Chair” by a capricious Beatrice. Chair turns out to be having an affair with Commodore Bellacourt (David Koechner), and Peepers must choose between his loyalty to the Manor and his loyalty to Lady Dodo. This is not just intended to satirize the high drama of Downton Abbey — it is also meant to point out the absurdity of the British drama’s worksite with almost no disaffected labor. It’s certainly possible that the cultural differences between England and America could explain the enthusiastic steadfast servitude of, for example, Downton Abbey’s Carson, but what Another Period suggests instead is that the oppressive working conditions inherent to this level of class disparity in a single household demand that the staff get bitter, competitive, and insistent that they love their work. The drama that erupts isn’t just because the wealthy characters have nothing better to do with their time (as in, say, P.G. Wodehouse’s stories) but also because the servant characters are desperate to ascend to jobs they imagine are better. That class mobility is as much a myth for these characters as it is for their English counterparts is very telling.
Another major target of Another Period’s satire is reality television, particular reality series focusing on the idle rich (e.g., Real Housewives and Kardashians franchises). Though these shows are markers of modernity, Another Period demonstrates that their lifestyles have deep roots in American history. Like personalities on current reality shows, the characters of Another Period are constantly drunk or high and sparking ill-advised internal conflicts. The historical figures who cameo on Another Period are also the reality-show versions of themselves: cynical, greedy, and publicity-hungry. When Harriet Tubman appears on Another Period, she pays lip service to the importance of women’s suffrage (as Tubman worked for in roughly this time period) but she’s really there to promote her line of branded barrels. Harry Houdini makes an appearance in this new season, and is easily exposed as a charlatan swindling the Bellacourts out of a small fortune to conduct a dog séance. Reality television is a poor method for revealing human nature, but the format is incredibly well-used here to expose the hypocrisies that nostalgia can hide. By blending the show’s fictional world with the real one, Another Period encourages its audience to look at, say, the political career of Beatrice’s brother-slash-lover Frederick (Jason Ritter) and ask how many centuries of US history are the story of braindead wealthy white boys like Frederick failing up into the White House.
A running joke throughout the series has involved the Lillian and Beatrice constantly misunderstanding their older sister Hortense’s fight for women’s suffrage. When they do understand it, the idea of voting sends them into a panic — it seems like an unpleasant interruption into their life of leisure. Hortense has been played by three actors since the series began: Artemis Pebdani, Lauren Ash, and Lauren Flans. She is played by a fourth actor in this new season (it may be a mild spoiler to say whom, but she’s a tremendous performer currently starring on a CW series). It’s not much of a surprise that the role’s so frequently recast: it’s largely thankless, requiring actors to be made up and mocked for being “ugly.” Hortense and the fight for suffrage takes a front seat this season, though, as Lillian and Beatrice realize that Hortense’s activism has made her something of a celebrity among progressive women. Now, they too will pick up this fight, and in the process teach the suffragists that they can get more support from men through a “bathing costume carriage wash” than by engaging men on the issues. Moments like these are funny presentations of anachronistic post-feminism (particularly when Lillian explains to Congress that women’s suffrage won’t lead to women only electing women candidates because “women hate each other”), but they’re still somewhat undercut by the show’s baked-in cynicism. The suffragists seem to make no progress at all until Lillian and Beatrice join the movement and disengage it from the actual issues involved.
In an interview with Erica Lies, Lindhome explained that Another Period storylines are not exclusively sourced from the imagination of its writers: “If we just do research, we can find storylines. We were just looking into it, like, ‘Okay, what was it like the first time women were in the Olympics? Probably the same as now or the first time women were in anything.’” That things have changed so little since 1902 is damning and painful. This is also what makes Another Period such a piercingly funny show — its reality-show format is distinctively modern, but its commentary on society today is planted deeper in its presentation of a tumultuous era with tremendous wealth disparities. By telling its stories largely through Beatrice and Lillian’s eyes, Another Period deals both with the ways upper-class women were entirely unprepared for a changing world (as Lillian explains in this season, “All wealthy women learn archery when they’re young. It’s the only sport that teaches the three basic tenets of womanhood: silence, standing still, and crushing boredom.”) and the ways they participated in the oppression of people of color and less monied classes. There are unlimited stories for Another Period to tell, as the role of women and the wealthy changes both a century ago and today — and Lindhome & Leggero are the perfect comedians to tell these stories in ways that illuminate and puncture the mythology of nostalgia other period pieces have bolstered.
Photo by Ali Goldstein.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.