An anachronism is not quite the same thing as a joke, but Dickinson tries its hardest to blur the distinction. The half-hour Apple TV+ comedy is easily the most ambitious (creatively, if not financially) and strange of the four series selected for the new service’s starting lineup. But for all its idiosyncrasies, the show has a rather consistent M.O. Its portrayal of the famously reclusive poet, who never married or published writing under her own name within her lifetime, recasts Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) as a rebellious, tomboyish teen chafing at upper-class gender roles in search of freedom. The aesthetic thus becomes a jumble of Dickinson’s native 19th century and that of the 21st-century fans appropriating her in their image. Characters pepper their speech with slang like “nailed it,” “bullshit,” and “eat a dick.” The soundtrack alternates an electronic score with modern anthems of angst, from Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend” to Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl.” The jokes wield hindsight as a weapon, turning layers of petticoats into a visual sight gag. It takes Dickinson significant effort and several seconds to figure out she has her period.
At times, this easy juxtaposition—olden times, treated like new!—can feel like all Dickinson has to offer. Valid as its namesake’s gripes with social strictures may be, the narrative Dickinson retroactively imposes onto her can be as simplistic as the one she strains against. This version of Dickinson wants desperately to be a published, renowned writer; her father, Edward (Toby Huss), a practically literal manifestation of the patriarchy, forbids it. In the first three episodes provided to critics, Dickinson seemed stifled by its need to make simplistic, now-uncontroversial points about women’s free expression and agency, just as Emily is stifled by society’s demand she spend her life cooking a husband’s meals. But in a strange choice for Apple and a fortuitous one for Dickinson, the series is the only one of the debut offerings to get a binge-style release, dropping its entire first season on Monday. Over the course of 10 episodes, Dickinson grows in confidence alongside its heroine. By the end, it’s still uneven, but in a way that inspires fascination far more than disappointment.
Created by The Newsroom and The Affair alumna Alena Smith, Dickinson is one of several recent portraits to refract the author through their own specific lens. (Full disclosure: Smith and I are internet acquaintances.) In 2016, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion cast a pregubernatorial run Cynthia Nixon as a middle-aged Dickinson, both determined and dissatisfied; last year’s Wild Nights With Emily, from filmmaker Madeleine Olnek and starring Molly Shannon, focused on Dickinson’s little-known romantic relationship with her friend turned sister-in-law Susan Gilbert. While rewinding to its subject’s later teen years, Dickinson’s irreverent humor and prominent gay romance place it closer to Wild Nights than A Quiet Passion. Still, all three draw from the same inspiration: the gap between the scale of Dickinson’s life and the scale of her work, of particular—though certainly not exclusive—interest to female creators who may see themselves in Dickinson’s ability to create despite the many institutional barriers in her path.
Steinfeld, also an executive producer, is well-suited to the task of adjusting Dickinson into a more contemporary kind of heroine. 2016’s underrated The Edge of Seventeen established the star as an avatar of spiky, angry adolescence, combining the charisma necessary to lead a project with enough oddity to convincingly play a social outcast—a delicate balance other teen-movie protagonists often fail to strike. On Dickinson, other characters’ constant observation that Emily is “weird” can grow flat and tiresome. But with her full-body physicality and expressive face, Steinfeld channels a spirit that can’t be contained by convention, prose, or even regular stationery. Dickinson wants to rewrite the narrative of its muse as a dour, sad spinster, arguing instead that marriage was a prison the vital and strong-willed Emily managed to escape. Steinfeld is the right woman for the job.
Dickinson’s lead performance helps guide the viewer through its early struggles with tone as it strives to be both earnest and tongue-in-cheek, strange and straightforward. Some elements of its structure suggest a sitcom or a satire. The epigraph states Dickinson never left her father’s house or achieved renown while she was alive, rendering her efforts to do so low on stakes. 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski plays Emily’s mother, and her sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), is a dead ringer for resident TGS ditz Cerie. (“Your vanity astonishes me, Lavinia,” Mrs. Dickinson chides. “Thank you!” she replies.) Real-life historical figures are treated with gleeful blasphemy: Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) is an attention hound posing as a hermit; Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet) is a jaded hand for hire. The use of irony—“It’s like if you really want justice for all people in this country, you have to vote Republican!”—and modern tropes like a “nude self-portrait” recall Another Period, the Comedy Central show about Newport heiresses as Gilded Age Kardashians.
But Dickinson also wants us to invest in Emily’s struggle to be known. Stasis is the lifeblood of the bingeable comedy, yet it’s a major impediment to selling the audience on Emily’s repeated attempts to get her work into the world. At the very least, it invites questions about how long Dickinson can sustain its central tension, should it continue into future seasons. Meanwhile, the impending Civil War looms over even Dickinson’s native Amherst, with sober debates over slavery awkwardly running through the season. (Edward, in keeping with his silencing of Emily, is a moderate politician on the wrong side of history, tolerant of human bondage in the name of preserving the Union.) There’s even a perfunctory acknowledgement that, whatever Emily’s frustrations, she’s still a well-off white girl. Such straight-faced moments may be well-intentioned, but they can make for a jarring, and disorienting, break from Dickinson’s insouciant streak. When Emily has her first orgasm to Mitski’s guitar shreds, which side of the show does it belong to?
The happy medium between these two modes, and the space where Dickinson thrives, is the full-blown surrealism scattered throughout. Much of the imagery is borrowed directly from Dickinson’s poems: Wiz Khalifa plays the title character of “Because I could not stop for Death,” taking Emily for nighttime carriage rides and heart-to-hearts; when a friend of Emily’s falls ill, she sees their impending death as a swarming pack of flies. Others are more original inventions, like when Emily takes opium at a house party and hallucinates a giant bee voiced by Jason Mantzoukas. In part, scenes like these help interrupt the visual monotony of buttoned-up Amherst. Mostly, they imbue it with Dickinson’s voice and give Dickinson the distinctiveness it seems to be striving for. No review of a show about horny teens would be complete without a comparison to Riverdale, but hanging out with the Grim Reaper is the closest Dickinson gets to the CW drama’s transcendent lunacy.
Whatever its faults, Dickinson mostly overpowers them through a palpable love for its subject. Snippets of Dickinson’s writing often flash across the screen in loopy, brightly colored text, letting her language—and distinctive punctuation—speak for itself even as Dickinson attempts to illustrate it. Part spoof, part teen drama, part biopic, Dickinson is an audacious effort, synthesizing many genres in pursuit of a singular figure. Even when it misses the mark, it’s aiming for something great.