AppleTV+'s new period comedy Dickinson is hardly what you'd call traditional. Despite the fact that it glimmers with all the lushness of a prestige drama, it's tone is anything but. And the thing is, that's precisely what makes it so much fun. The series embraces the anachronistic spirit of films like The Favourite and Marie Antoinette to tell the story of a woman who was vastly ahead of her time - using tropes and twists from outside of her time.
There's modern slang, hip-hop music, drugs, and all manner of things one most certainly does not tend to associate with famous American poet Emily Dickinson, a woman who's largely remembered today for her reclusive lifestyle, and the hundreds of dark, brilliant and confusing poems discovered in a trunk after her death. (Fun fact: She only published 12 in her lifetime.) Yet, the end result is a frothy, funny, bizarre and utterly human tale of an unruly young woman who wanted more than the world was ready to give her.
Dicksinson isn't going to be a show for everyone. Certainly, historical purists will dislike the way the series' plays fast and loose with the actual facts of Dickinson's life, casting the poet as a sort of rebellious hero figure and gleefully making the assumed subtext of her life overtly textual in almost every way. Yet, there's something that feels fresh and exciting about this particular framework - as though imagining Dickinson's life complete with a lesbian love affair and sly winks toward modern-day gender norms have spurred us all to reenage with her life and works in new ways.
And isn't that, really, sort of the point of historical retellings in the first place?
This show exists as a sort of cross between a CW teen drama and a magical realism fantasy, with a dash of queer romance and some overt ridiculousness thrown in on top. This is a series that treats Emily's love of solitary time under a neighborhood tree and her fascination with a personification of Death itself as equivalent A plots, so that's something you're just going to have to get used to as the series goes on. But it's worth it, in the end.
Actress Hailee Steinfeld is luminous as the young Emily, an irreverent, irrepressible force that refuses to be held down by the world in which she finds herself. Here, she's an outspoken free spirit, who disobeys the mother who wants nothing more than to marry her off to some - really, any - man and who pushes back against her supposedly progressive father's draconian views about the capabilities and worthiness of women. Yet she's also a typical willful twentysomething, who does opium with friends during a house party thrown while the Dickinson parents are out of town, complains about her siblings, and finds herself embroiled in a passionate love affair. (Which, just so happens to be with her best friend Sue, who's also set to become her sister in law. Who says only modern day stories can be messy?)
Ella Hunt, who plays Sue, is the perfect quiet straight man to Steinfeld's wry intensity, and the connection between the two is charming, sweet and easy to root for throughout. Maybe these are two women who never would have been able to be happy with one another in the time they were living in - but you'll likely find yourself wishing they could have been anyway.
Each episode is ostensibly framed around one of Dickinson's poems - and though the accompanying stories likely have very little to do with the actual content of the real Emily's works, it's a rather ingenious conceit that I kind of love. "Because I could not stop for Death" is reimagined as a real courtship with a personification of Death himself played by Wiz Khalifa who rides around in a carriage pulled by ghost horses and takes Emily out at night.
“My darling. You’ll be the only Dickinson they talk about in 200 years. I promise you that,” he tells her, by way of promising immortality.
It's deeply weird, and strangely wonderful at the same time. Which is possibly the most succint way to describe this show entirely, come to that.
But it's also earnest and eager and wildly sentimental. Dickinson believes in big concepts like love and art, and gives us a story of Dickinson's life in bright, bold colors. Everything is turned up to 11, as the young people of Amherst chase and cattily judge one another, angsting over marriage prospects and friendships and social status. It's certainly not those of us who were English majors would call a traditional take on the author's life or works. But maybe it's precisely the one we need right now.
Have you given Dickinson a try yet? Are you planning to? Let's discuss.