‘Dickinson’ Review: Apple Crafts an Irreverent, Gen Z-ified Imagining of the Poet’s Early Years

     November 1, 2019

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Okay, so here’s the most important thing you need to know about the new Apple TV+ series Dickinson: It’s so much fun. No, really. One of the first original series for the forthcoming Apple TV+ streaming platform, Dickinson is feisty, youthful, queer, eccentric — a damn good time overall. It’s confident in its vision and the casting of Hailee Steinfeld as a young Emily Dickinson is one of the best calls I’ve been treated to in recent memory. If you’re looking for something refreshing to binge.

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Image via Apple TV+

Having seen the first three episodes of Dickinson for this review, I can confidently tell you this show is a ray of light. The half-hour series is very much cut from the same cloth as the teen dramas populating Freeform and The CW with tinges of HBO’s Euphoria, all filtered through the same anachronistic lens that gave us 2006’s Marie Antoinette. And yet, despite these similarities, it’s clear that series creator and writer Alena Smith is confident in the take she has for telling a fictionalized version of Dickinson’s teenage years.

The series begins in 1848: Emily is a charming, wily 18-year-old who wakes from a deep sleep while it’s still dark out because she just got hit with the perfect start to another poem. She’s a middle child, with older brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe) and younger sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov — and yes, she’s Mikhail‘s daughter, in case you were wondering) there to keep her company and be her allies against strict parents played by Toby Huss (Halt and Catch Fire) and Jane Krakowski (30 Rock). The Dickinson family is tight-knit and prominent, with Mr. Dickinson ruling the roost with a firm hand. Emily feels the restrictions of the life her parents want for her hemming her in to a degree she openly loathes and quietly rebels against. She greets a suitor her mother is eager to introduce her to as if she’s possessed by a demon; she is more focused on finding the next line to an in-progress poem than keeping the family’s daily water in a pail; she collects birds nests and lets them pile up in the family sitting room; she has nightly visits with her crush, Death (Wiz Khalifa in a bit of stunt casting that weirdly and wonderfully works), where she talks to him like a therapist and he warns her of the Civil War, a little over a decade away from tearing the United States asunder. Oh dear, whatever are we going to do with her?

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Image via Apple TV+

Dickinson may look like a period piece but it sounds and feels like something wholly modern. Smith eschews the flowery language of the era for a more conversational, contemporary flow. Sure, Emily never reels off a “Sick, brah” but she’s not wherefore art thou’ing at every turn — and I’m here for that and that alone. Let’s cut through the fluff and speak plainly. And while we’re celebrating the modern takes on the time period, we should give a shoutout to Smith who has found ways to make things like the Dickinson siblings throwing a house party feel like something right out of an ’80s teen comedy. Of that house party episode in particular there are some genius twists, with one specifically fab moment involving Emily substituting laudanum for a 2019 party drug like molly, and encouraging the teens of Amherst, Massachussetts to indulge in a few drops with her.

Even Smith’s scripting and handling of Emily’s queer relationship with her close friend and soon-to-be sister-in-law Sue (Ella Hunt) — a key, if alleged, element of Dickinson’s life — is handled deftly and well and in a way that never feels exploitative, just tender. There’s real stakes to Emily facing experience the unique, specifically brutal pain of watching someone she loves and trusts about to become unattainable yet remain so very near. Knowing this was actually Dickinson’s lot in life makes it all the more relatable and soul-crushing.

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Image via Apple TV+

While the set-up of Dickinson is promising — a mid-19th century teen drama as seen through the eyes of a soon-to-be-infamous female poet — it’s the performances that really set this show up for greatness and sell dialogue and storylines that would, in other hands, just be another Drunk History episode. Steinfeld is so comfortable in Emily’s skin, bringing forth a low-key rebellious spirit I could only dream of having at her age. There is a confidence rooting Steinfeld’s take on Dickinson but she is also embracing the wild, joyous confusion you can only feel as you sit on the cusp of adulthood, ready to come into your own. I’ve also got to give mad props to Huss and Krakowski, who not only form an intriguing onscreen partnership and thus, play well off one another, but individually bring in their years of chops to the table without stealing the focus from their younger co-stars who have to share the screen with them.

Now, you might be rolling your eyes at this point because, surely, it can’t all be witticisms and chuckles and goodies galore, right? Right. Dickinson has a few weak spots that threaten to rip you out of the show’s flow but are on par for a new show coming from a new streamer still finding its footing.

The biggest sore spot for me was the blatant “#Feminism” sentiments that run rampant. Dickinson rarely wastes an opportunity to underline and bold a moment where the ahead-of-her-time Emily is brushing up against what we now know to be outdated mores and practices put upon women. It starts from the cold open of the premiere when Emily is woken up at 4 A.M. by her sister, Lavinia, to go into town to fetch water. When Emily balks and asks why their older brother, Austin, can’t get it, Lavinia reminds her that “he’s a boy” with emphasis on the last word as if “no duh, sis” should be in its place. Emily’s succinct reply (“This is bullshit”) before the opening credits practically shouts at you this show is going to take every chance to rewrite history and sound the feminism alarm loudly and often.

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Image via Apple TV+

Another oddity which is, admittedly, more easily overlooked are the needle drops. The soundtrack to the series is deliciously anachronistic, with the songs chosen more 2016 than 1846. In the first three episodes alone we get killer tracks including Billie Eilish‘s “Bury a Friend”Lizzo‘s “Boys”, and even the electronica-infused “I Like Tuh” from Carnage featuring MAKONNEN. Some are a little too on-the-nose even if they are fun as hell (lookin’ at you, “Boys”) and yes, they risk throwing you out of the moment. While the song choices run the risk of making you bristle as you watch, they also have a narrative purpose which helps deepen certain plot points and they offer up more relatable entry points for viewers, so it’s a win I can live with.

Make no mistake: Dickinson is going to be the talk of the town. It will please viewers aching for some Big Little Lies melodrama by way of Pride and Prejudice as much as it will intrigue viewers in dire need of something light yet completely ready to envelope you in its well-realized world. Set aside time to watch all 11 episodes of Dickinson now; at 30 minutes a pop, this series is well worth your time.

Dickinson Season 1 will be available on Apple TV+ starting November 1st, the same day the new streamer launches. For more on Apple’s content, check out our reviews for The Morning ShowSee, and For All Mankind.

Rating: ★★★

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Image via Apple TV+

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