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Dickinson is a flawed, but spirited reintroduction of a literary icon

Hailee Steinfeld
Photo: Apple TV+
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At its surface, Apple TV+’s Dickinson ostensibly serves to tell the story of Emily The Young Poet (Hailee Steinfeld), weaving gilded verses from some of Emily Dickinson’s famous poems through images of her hard at work with her quill in hand. At its heart, it’s a comedy that centers on a young teen who is eager to forge her own path, gets her period at the worst of times, fights with her parents, and is in love with her best friend, Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). Any perceived distance between a tale set in the 19th century and the millennial audience it targets is lessened ever-so-slightly with each moment of mischief, every scene’s vague, underlying trap beat, and, at one point, rapper Wiz Khalifa. It’s a somewhat fresh approach saddled with a number of inherent risks—specifically, the very present possibility of a show trying too hard, and there are definitely moments within the show’s first three episodes that can be charged with as much. But overall, Alena Smith’s Dickinson blends the evergreen charm of similarly framed period tales—where young women firmly rebel against societal norms in the name of spiritual freedom—with the unabashedly modern tone of Drunk History. And for the most part, it works.

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The real story of one of our culture’s most revered literary paragons has a rather late—posthumous, even—start. Only 12 poems were actually published during Emily’s lifetime while the bulk of her work was discovered and later released by her sister, Lavinia (portrayed in the series by the subtly hilarious Anna Baryshnikov), after her death. As a teen, Emily’s reputation was based on both her family’s prominence in Amherst, Massachusetts and her rebellious nature, bolstered by a curious spirit and a passion for knowledge. If there is anything tempting about playing Emily either too reverently or as a reflection of more dated assumptions (to put it plainly, like a creepy recluse), Dickinson succumbs to none of it. Instead, Steinfeld easily taps into a free-spirited, occasionally odd young woman with a serviceable social life and the same bratty tendencies that many young people might recognize from their own adolescence. If there are certain beats that feel repetitive, it could have less to do with a lack of inventiveness and more with the show’s nascency, and there’s enough variety between the first three episodes for our assumptions to lean towards the latter.

Steinfeld has the good fortune of being surrounded by an equally solid supporting ensemble, one where the women shine especially brightly. As Emily’s domesticity-craving sister, Baryshnikov flexes fantastic comedic timing without framing Lavinia’s desire for marriage—something that Emily unflinchingly rejects—as a choice to be lampooned. Hunt has found a delectable rhythm with Steinfeld, gracefully falling into the amorphous role of Emily’s best friend/romantic partner while maintaining her own identity. Though the relationship between the real Emily and Susan is largely assumed, it’s refreshing to see series creator Smith take the liberty of leaning into the queer overtones rather than shrouding their bond in ambiguous doublespeak and furtive glances, a notable choice for a property with a TV-14 rating. (Is it the first youth-skewing program to do so? Obviously not, but it also isn’t claiming to be. It’s just nice, and we could always use more of it.)

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The adult Dickinsons are approached somewhat differently than the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss and Jane Krakowski, respectively) share a cadence that often mimics what you’d expect to hear in a 19th-century narrative—airy, lofty, and dripping with the formality of highly regarded socialites. It would not be worth mentioning if their younger counterparts weren’t so anchored in a more modern delivery. That juxtaposition of tones can be jarring at times, and it has the power to frame how the audience perceives the less current of the two. In the case of the adults, their narratives are fairly homogeneous: Both parents staunchly defend gender roles and propriety in their own ways, insisting that Emily follow her mother’s very eager example. For a young adult, coming-of-age series, it’s not exactly out of the ordinary to position adults as the opposition, but whether or not Mr. and Mrs. Dickinson will have the chance to evolve into more three-dimensional figures remains to be seen. The main difference between the two lies chiefly with Krakowski’s entertaining performance; she appears to have genuine fun with the more extreme, caricature-like aspects of Mrs. Dickinson, adding to the show’s favorable proclivity to not take itself too seriously.

Another prevalent signal of Dickinson’s contemporary approach is its use of hip-hop, which seemingly reaches an early climax when Wiz Khalifa turns up in the pilot as Emily’s personification of death (though, ironically, the score momentarily switches to a more angsty pop favorite for his introduction). The idea, from inception to execution, is intriguing: As an artist who held such a deep fascination with death that she wrote over 500 poems on the subject, having the concept manifest as a chill, velvet-toned, blunt-wielding arbiter of peace is somehow equal parts corny and soothing. At the barest of minimums, Khalifa pulls off the idea well and Smith’s intention to illustrate Emily’s morbid curiosity translates.

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It also toes a razor-thin line between inventive imagery and the more problematic, well-worn Magical Negro trope, which presents Black characters in a quasi-mystical light for the sole purpose of comforting a non-Black character. When you examine that alongside the show’s liberal use of hip-hop music and the notably light visibility of Black characters outside of service roles (though The Leftovers Amanda Warren does appear briefly in the second episode as Betty, a successful seamstress with her own shop), there’s room for some valid concern. Dancing to Lizzo while trying on men’s formal wear obviously looks like an absolute blast and shame on anyone who tries to deny someone else such a good time. But if Dickinson plans to rest its cool, alluring ambiance on the shoulders of Black culture, then ideally, future episodes will introduce (or flesh out) prominent Black characters to complement such a bold choice. (And yes, Dickinson does address abolitionism—not well, but it addresses it.)

That being said, Dickinson side-steps subdued period storytelling in order to introduce a version of Emily Dickinson that feels familiar not just in name, but in something more personal. Bucking the currently flourishing trend of gritty teen dramas, Smith takes what could have been a morose tale and adds an element of much-needed fun, making a towering cultural figure approachable for a younger (or not-as-knowledgeable) audience. While it’s too early to call it poetry in motion, Dickinson shows real promise.

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