Review: Emily Dickinson is America’s Original Quirky Girl in “Dickinson”

Dickinson Hailee Steinfeld in Apple TV+'s "Dickinson."

Despite the ridiculous concept and uneven tone, Apple TV+’s new comedy is a compelling watch.

Even 130 years after her death, Emily Dickinson remains one of America’s most beloved poets. Despite spending much of her adult life in seclusion and only publishing less than a dozen poems while alive, she was extremely prolific, penning over 1800 poems. Alena Smith (The Affair, My America) gives Dickinson a quirky girl persona for her new show on Apple TV+’s streaming platform, appropriately titled Dickinson. It’s an odd mixture, blending elements of Daria and Broad City with period piece drama. The result is a show that is more than the sum of its parts, thanks largely due to compelling characters brought to life by a quirky, unconventional cast. 

Set in Amherst, MA sometime in the mid-Nineteenth century – the year is never specified, but it is antebellum as civil tension but not war is discussed – Emily (Hailee Steinfield, Pitch Perfect 2) is an eccentric young woman living with her mother (Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock), father (Toby Huss, King of the Hill), sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov, Manchester By the Sea), and brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Emily finds herself at odds with the restrictions placed on women of her time and fights constantly with her mother over a desire not to do chores. She finds solace in her best friend and clandestine lover, Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt, Anna and the Apocalypse). Tension comes into Emily’s life as she fights with her parents over her “proper place” as a woman, and when Sue accepts a marriage proposal from Austin. 

Each episode is centered around Emily writing a verse of poetry, with the climax of each episode coming to a head with the completion of the verse – and in the second episode, the climax is both figurative and literal. The use of poetry as a framing device allows the genius of Dickinson’s poetry to shine and lends a (fictional) context to the author’s (fictional) life. 

The most jarring and potentially off-putting aspect of Dickinson is the way the dialogue for the characters is modernized. This often comes across as a rather lame attempt to make the characters seem more appealing to “the youths.” What’s worse is that it is applied unevenly throughout the show, with the characters speaking in time appropriate dialogue with an anachronistic word/phrase thrown in, such as Austin describing the house his parents will build for him as “pimp,” or a young man telling Lavinia she looks “hella ripe.” Do young kids even use these terms? Your humble reviewer just turned 33, and since these are slang terms from his youth, I doubt teenagers are still using them.

The appeal to a younger demographic also comes through in the use of contemporary music – while this isn’t as jarring as the slang, it still comes off as incongruous. The modern elements come into sharp contrast with the sumptuous set and costume design. The Dickinson house, the most used setting, is luxuriously decorated, and the costuming is detailed and gorgeous. There are times the anachronisms are charming – period dancing overlaid with rap music – but it generally creates the show’s most groanworthy moments. 

What Dickinson gets right, however, is its characters. Even with its weird use of modern phrases, the characters are all compelling in their own way. The primary focus of the first three episodes is on Emily and Sue’s relationship. Emily is presented as extremely headstrong and principled but is often reinforced that her ability to be so is due to her privilege. Despite the fights she gets has with her father over her behavior, he explicitly spoils her and wants to keep her in the family home, which gives her more leeway than most women of her era.

This is expertly balanced by Sue’s tragic backstory as a penniless orphan. After learning of Sue’s engagement to Austin, Emily berates her, saying they promised to never marry, and Sue reminds her that she has no family or money, and could possibly starve to death without marriage. Dickinson’s feminism is often very basic, with Emily upset at her inability to attend a science lecture or her father’s anger at her being published. But we see the other ways in which women are stifled in their domestic role, which hopefully will be addressed in more depth in future episodes. The first three episodes begin to dive into the lesbian relationship between Emily and Sue, and this will surely be the primary conflict for the rest of the season. 

There are times the anachronisms are charming – period dancing overlaid with rap music – but it generally creates the show’s most groanworthy moments. 

Throughout the first three episodes, Emily’s jealousy mounts and she begins to act like a brat in her attempts to keep Austin and Sue apart. Hunt is by far the standout of the show with her performance as Sue. Surrounded by the upper class, she is torn by her desire for a relationship with Emily and the reality of her situation. Even as Austin offers her support, she struggles with becoming dependent on him, and the third episode ends with her running away from the jealousy and control exhibited over her by both Emily and Austin. 

The other standout is Jane Krakowski as Mrs. Dickinson. Krakowski brings the same sort of frantic energy she brought to Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock (which earned her a spot in The Spool’s very own Hall of Faces). But she channels it into a character who chooses to find fulfillment in her life as a homemaker. In the second episode, Emily has convinced her father to hire a maid so she no longer has to do housework. This leads Mrs. Dickinson into an existential crisis, and the scene where she expresses her dismay to her husband is heartbreaking in how he ignores her distress to keep Emily happy. 

Rounding out the main cast is Lavinia, Emily’s hapless and lovelorn sister who often plays the foil to her sister’s cynical outlook. She yearns for the life of a housewife and to marry, perfectly content with the idea of a normal life. It’s nice to see a sister relationship that isn’t primarily antagonistic. While there is some normal sibling quibbling, the two seem to care deeply for each other even if their life goals are diametrically opposed. 

One can hardly say that Dickinson is primarily concerned with historical accuracy – it’s hard to believe that someone most famous for being a recluse would voluntarily throw an opium-fueled rager – but despite its liberties with Dickinson’s character, this shows has a lot of promise. The tonal issues do need to be resolved, but that is something that can be course-corrected with further episodes; think of the uneven start that Bojack Horseman had in its first few episodes. Even with its flaws, each episode is compelling, and the show feels binge-worthy.

Is it worth it alone to justify an additional $5/month spent on streaming services? Maybe, but probably not. However, if another one of Apple’s original shows looks tempting (check out The Spool’s reviews for the other shows), then it would be worth your while. At the very least, sign up for the 7 day free trial and give this show a binge-watch. 

Dickinson kindly stops for thee on Apple TV+ when the service launches November 1.

Dickinson Trailer:

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