Comedy Central’s Period Drama Digs Funny Feminism

During the middle of a heat wave last July, I discovered the intricate, absurd, yet culturally-relevant gem that is Comedy Central’s Another Period. Within three minutes of watching the show, I was giddy.

What made the pilot so captivating? The innovative combination of historical drama and reality TV? The decadence?

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Was it Snoop Dogg’s theme song?

Michael Ian Black’s butler extraordinaire, Peepers?

Set in Newport, Rhode Island at the turn of the 20th century, the series follows the obscenely wealthy Bellacourt sisters, Lillian and Beatrice (played by executive producers Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome, respectively). A caricature of modern-day celebutantes, the sisters are vapid, conniving, and vain—drinking arsenic to maintain a fashionable pallor, and putting their children to sleep with morphine. Their only life goal is to maintain a lifestyle of decadence and achieve worldwide fame. In essence, they’re the Kardashians of the Victorian age.

How obscene are they? Mid-way through the pilot, Lillian declares, “When I’m done with Helen Keller, being deaf and blind is going to be the least of her problems.” Erratic, extremely dramatic, and hilarious, lines like this set the tone for the series. I was in. Two seasons later, it’s still one of my favorites.

Season two premiered in June and wrapped up on Wednesday, August 24. It was even more gonzo than its predecessor—no easy task, considering the first season involved a fake funeral and a beauty pageant where women competed against babies and cabbages.

Still, the latest season began with Lillian and Beatrice enlisting the help of Harriett Tubman to become famous. It ended with Lillian dying, and being resurrected by the scent of money.

The universe of Bellacourt Manor exists in a vacuum, completely unhinged from reality. But Another Period does not. Each episode explores modern issues through the lens of antiquated Victorian tropes. While today’s reality stars perpetuate beauty standards with Botox and liposuction, Lillian and Beatrice maintain their fashionable pallor by drinking arsenic before a going on a date. Mental illness, still a prevalent concern in the 21st century, is portrayed as “hysteria.”

The show is not just a capsule of the Gilded Age, but of modern history. “Trial of the Century,” for example, pays homage to some of America’s most memorable court cases, including the O.J. Simpson saga and the Manson trial.

Ostensibly, the plot is about the lecherous servant Hamish’s murder trial. Ludicrous antics quickly overshadow any semblance of a narrative. Mark Twain—a reoccurring character on the show—acted as Hamish’s attorney, and drunkenly blundered his defense. Perez Hilton made a cameo as the courtroom photographer. An inordinate amount of time is devoted to a scene where Peepers struggled to pronounce the word “ravioli.”

But the show ebbs and flows insanity and self-awareness. With less than three minutes left in the episode, an innocent black man is charged with the murder. Hamish is acquitted, and everybody cheers. With its capricious meting out of justice and oblivious overjoyed mobs, the episode deftly underscores the racial injustice that has riven American society since its inception and continues to do so today.

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Episodes like this are not an anomaly. Another Period tackles serious topics like spousal abuse, race relations, and abortion rights with similar scenes in the first and second season. The message is always clear without being heavy-handed.

This balance of humor and insight sets Another Period apart from the average slapstick comedy show. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lindhome and Leggero explained the reasoning for including such social commentary. “A hundred years later, we’re still going through the same issues,” said Leggero.

“We wish it could be like, ‘Can you believe what used to go on?’” said Lindhome. “Like, that’s how we wish it was, but it’s just not true. And it’s kind of a bummer, but it’s also nice to shine a light on that.”

Out of all the issues the show draws upon, critics and viewers are captivated by the feminist angle.

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Lillian and Beatrice are unlikely feminist icons, and that is exactly why the show has garnered so much praise for its progressive outlook on women’s rights. By season two’s finale, the sisters are deemed “the new faces of feminism” by Harriet Tubman (and in real life, by Paste Magazine). They’re women who drink, smoke, and burn their freckles off before meeting guests—and they still deserve respect.

Paste writer Amanda Wicks agrees with the fictional Harriet Tubman. She’s followed the show since the pilot, and in her review of the finale, she speculates that the sisters may lead the first wave of feminism. This is noteworthy, according to Wicks, when you take into consideration the cultural climate surrounding feminism today. “Written from the vantage of post-feminism,” said Wicks, “That ever-contested distancing from what first and second wave feminism fought so hard to achieve, Another Period stands to do big things by positioning the Bellacourt sisters as the forefront of the original fight.”

With shows like Broad City, Not Safe With Nikki Glaser, and now Another Period, Comedy Central is curating a new brand of entertainment that celebrates subversive feminism. These shows seamlessly segue from zany stunts to enlightened commentary.

As for the “future” of feminism in 1902, viewers can decide for themselves when season three premieres next year.

Watch reruns on Comedy Central, Comedy Central.com, and on the Comedy Central App.

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