Tara Ward reviews one of AppleTV’s flagship shows, Dickinson, a dishy romp through the teenage years of Emily Dickinson.
“This is such bullshit,” a young Emily Dickinson says in the opening scenes of Dickinson. It’s four in the morning sometime in the mid 1800s, and Emily’s precious writing time has been rudely interrupted by an order to collect water for her family. Emily’s brother can’t do it, because he’s a boy. Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld, who also exec-produces) calls bullshit on that, and ta-dah, we meet the central theme of Dickinson: being a girl in the 1800s sucks.
The bullshit moment is the first sign that Apple+’s new show is not your typical period drama. If you’re looking for something to replace Downton or Poldark, Dickinson is probably not the show for you. Inspired by the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, Dickinson has the beautiful costumes and settings of your usual historical piece, but comes with a fresh, creative twist. The show pulses with modern language (“nailed it,” Emily says after she finishes a poem) and a contemporary soundtrack that includes Billie Eilish and A$AP Rocky.
This modern take makes Dickinson feel accessible, in that Emily could be a moody teenager from 2019 with a penchant for lace collars, rather than a distant figure who lived two centuries ago and never left the house. Emily smokes, does drugs, and has a hot affair with her brother’s fiance. She’s also obsessed with death, and dreams about wearing a scandalously red frock and taking a ride behind Death’s CGI horses.
“You’ll be the only Dickinson they talk about in 200 years,” Death (Wiz Khalifa) reassures her, and here we are, watching Emily Dickinson dance to Lizzo’s ‘Boys’ as she dresses up in men’s clothes and smokes a pipe with her girlfriend. Boys, they make the girls go crazy, and not in a good way.
The trouble with the first couple of episodes of Dickinson is that doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious drama about the feminist struggles of a 19th century writer, or a dark comedy about the universal woes of an unfulfilled teenager. It’s also tricky to know who Dickinson is for – teens looking for a smart, sarcastic heroine, or historical drama fans who’ve come for a multi-layered, visual treat. Unsure where it wants to go, Dickinson goes absolutely everywhere, and initally suffers for it.
It would be easy to give up after episode one, which is full of cliches and heavy on dialogue. Emily’s world looks gorgeous, but she comes across as a petulant teenager who rages in nearly every scene, and the storytelling lacks subtlety. We know Emily’s talented, because we’re repeatedly told so. She’s a genius! She’s a brilliant writer! She’s absolutely fearless! That’s what all the men tell us, ironically, so it must be true.
But by the second episode, Dickinson begins to find its feet and by the third, the show hits the mark as a clever coming-of-age comedy. In ‘Wild Nights’, the Dickinson siblings hold a house party where they take opium and twerk in corseted gowns, and it’s a genuinely funny, delightful piece of televison. Dickinson works best when it abandons its preconceptions of what Emily Dickinson should be, and leans into imagining what Emily Dickinson could have been. It’s sweet reward after the first two episodes, and shows great promise for the rest of the series.
When Dickinson hits its straps, it’s a lively watch that mixes sharp social commentary with teenage sensibilities. “I have one purpose on this earth, and that is to be a great writer,” Emily says, but how can she write if she’s stuck doing endless chores? How can she be with the woman she loves, if society forces women to marry for economic survival? Why won’t Mr Dickinson hire a maid so Emily has time to pash her girlfriend in the apple orchard during a torrential downpour?
Emily is surrounded by women who are arguably more trapped than she is, and this is one thread Dickinson could pull a little more. The maid’s arrival means Emily’s mother (Jane Krawkoski), who has dedicated her life to making her husband happy, is suddenly displaced, and Emily doesn’t realise her new freedom is gained through another woman’s domestic servitude. There’s also Sue (Ella Hunt), Emily’s best friend and lover, who becomes engaged to Emily’s brother after her entire family dies. At least Emily has the security of a home and money, and even a room of one’s own. Sue must marry a man who’s willing to pay her debts, or she will be destitute.
“Maybe they’re scared that if they teach us how the world works, we’ll figure out how to take over,” Emily tells Sue, as they discuss the men who won’t let them do all the things. Dickinson is about a woman trying to work out who she really is, in a world determined to limit her potential. Emily is flawed but full of life, she’s discovering her own sexuality, and she’s goofy and spontaneous. I’m all for heroines who stuff orange peels in their gobs and make silly faces, and this Emily Dickinson delivers like a grumpy poet bringing two buckets of water from the village well.
You can watch Dickinson on AppleTV, which is available on more or less any streaming device.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.