In Dickinson, her new comedy series on Apple TV+, creator Alena Smith presents great American poet Emily Dickinson as a young woman notably out-of-time, living in the 1800s with the core values of a modern-day millennial.
Dickinson, whose work was mostly published after she died, was an anti-social girl who spent her life cooped up in the bedroom of her family home. Her work was written in private, with her father refusing her permission to publish, adamant that it would only harm their family name. Few people in Emily’s life support her poetry, aside from Sue, her oldest friend and future sister-in-law, with whom she shares a secret romance.
At its core, Dickinson is a black comedy; a teen drama with an inevitably tragic end. Emily’s future is made clear to the viewer in the opening moments of the very first episode, and the series doesn’t shy away from the darker themes necessary to tell her story well, neither dismissing them nor making light of them.
The balance between the opposing themes, tones and languages may be peculiar for some, but it’s precisely what makes the show so engaging. While the periodic setting is always made abundantly clear, Emily can frequently be heard saying various words that have only become popular in the past twenty years or so. Audiences will hear phrases like ‘so pimp’, ‘pretty psyched’ and ‘nailed it’ mentioned throughout the series, and there’s even an episode in which she holds a house party and gets her friends high on opium while they all dance and twerk to modern pop music (even Billie Eilish and Lizzo feature on the soundtrack). This might all sound very strange (it is), but it’s precisely what makes the show work. Emily is shown to be a woman born in the wrong era and vastly ahead of her own time, and this comes across superbly, weakened only by the fact that she isn’t the only character to speak in the way she does.
When it comes to historical accuracy, there really is nothing wrong with meddling with it if there is at least a reason for doing so, and the modern references in Dickinson serve a clear purpose for its protagonist, with many other important elements going unchanged, including Emily’s poetry, not a word of which is altered.
The series really excels when showing Emily’s relationship with Sue, which is portrayed both tastefully and intimately. Sue played a big role in Emily’s life, but their story has largely been omitted over the years, most notably in the 2016 film A Quiet Passion, which essentially pretended it never happened. Here, the characters are actually given the time to breathe; Emily and Sue are both very mature about what they have and fully understand the impossibility of it, and Steinfeld shares truly excellent chemistry with Ella Hunt.
A surprisingly excellent piece of casting comes in the form of Wiz Khalifa as ‘Death’, who Emily regularly visits in her dreams. The rapper makes very few appearances, but his scenes with Steinfeld are at once magnetic, romantic and disturbing; it’s in these moments that the darkness behind Emily Dickinson best comes to the forefront.
The series isn’t short of its flaws, including often clunky and obvious dialogue, the odd casting of Jane Krakowski as Emily’s mother, and the rather shallow portrayals of the male characters, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses. Dickinson is a show that works even when it doesn’t, thanks mostly to the outstanding Hailee Steinfeld, an actress with such natural charisma and charm that she simply cannot be faulted. She is the shining light of the series and the reason it rises above so many of its many problems.
It’s also a show that rewards patience, developing into a stronger story with each passing episode. It’s in the last few that we get our first glimpse into the tragic and sad Emily Dickinson that we are all familiar with, as a result of her relationship with Ben and the incidents surrounding her brother Austin’s marriage to Sue. It’s a series with the potential to grow into something far stronger than it is.
Dickinson is a supremely fun show with a likeable and watchable lead; a re-imagining that feels both fresh and interesting. With a second season already on the horizon, it’s clear that Alena Smith has a vision for its future that will become more prevalent as it continues. It has the feel of a show that could gradually find an audience and become better appreciated over time, so it’s worth the effort now to be among the very first to discover it.
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