This Dickinson review is based on the first three episodes of the 10-episode first season.
Dickinson, Apple TV+‘s dramedy starring the always highly-watchable Hailee Steinfeld as the famous American poet, is a joyfully irreverent send-up of the entire historical drama genre in the tradition of Marie Antoinette. Like that cinematic classic, Dickinson recognizes that there is only narrow historical truth to be found in the arbitrary rules of a Serious Costume Drama, and even less room for diversity. There is just as much truth to be found in the things that evoke the authenticity of life long past through the lens of today’s culture, which is to say: Lizzo.
Dickinson follows teenage rebel writer Emily (a spirited Steinfeld) in 1850s Massachusetts as she chafes against the gendered expectations of her family and Amherst society. Emily isn’t alone in her struggle. While siblings Austin (Adrian Enscoe) and Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) may be perfectly content with the paths laid out before them, Emily’s best friend Sue (Ella Hunt) is game for Emily’s antics, which include dressing up as boys in order to hear a volcano-themed lecture at nearby Amherst College.
Each half-hour episode is loosely constructed around one of Dickinson’s poems, though the TV show takes creative liberties when it comes to imagining the inspiration behind each verse—although not as many creative liberties as viewers may think. Much of Emily’s poetry is fueled by her romantic and sexual feelings for Sue, of whom Emily once wrote: “I need her — I must have her, Oh give her to me!”
Pulsing with contemporary music and teaming with Pinterest aesthetics, Dickinson gets top marks for style, but, at least in its first three episodes, is less confident in tone. When it comes to Emily’s ambitions, for example, at times the show tries (and fails) to frame Emily’s clashes with her parents—father Edward (a delightful Toby Huss) and mother Mrs. Dickinson (Jane Krakowski, who feels like she is in a different show)—comedically, like the whining of a millennial still living on her parents’ couch (an overrepresented, generally simplistic stereotype I rarely have any time for).
Other times, the series wants us to take Emily’s complaints much more seriously, framing them as valid criticism against the patriarchal suffocation of her talents and ambitions, both when it comes to her writing and to her relationships. “There’s so much I want to learn, and I can’t just go and get taught,” Emily says in the second episode. “I have to steal random bits of knowledge when no one else is looking.” You can see how the first framing might work to undermind the second. (Generally,Dickinson is much more consistent when it comes to the relationships amongst the young adults of this world, most especially in the complex, tender love between Emily and Sue.)
Dickinson may be about the toxic buffoonery of the patriarchy, both then and now, but, at least in the first three episodes, the paying off (or not) of stakes feel much more long-term, as is often the case with stories based on historical figures. This could become a problem, especially paired with Dickinson‘s tonal confusion. Too many of this story’s roughest edges have been filed down, like a Fleabag without the wincing, which is to say: without the kind of raw, ugly honesty that hurts before it heals. Instead, thus far, Dickinson plays it safe. If it wants to make waves in the way that its namesake did, it’s going to have to say something novel in addition to stylishly.
That being said, there’s still plenty of room for this kind of development and escalation in the rest of the first season’s episode and, with a second season already in production, Dickinson has time to figure out what it wants to say and be. In the meantime, this show is a heck of a lot of stylish, feminist, queer fun.