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If You Don’t Know Emily, Apple TV+’s Dickinson Won’t Be Much Help

Hailee Steinfeld plays the badass poetess who exists only in this show’s fevered imagination.
  • Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (Apple TV+)
    Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (Apple TV+)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    “Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne’er succeed” 

    But enough about Apple TV+. I kid! Still, as you probably know, the critics have not been impressed by Apple’s initial leap into the turkey barrel of streaming content. (I know “fire hose” is the standard industry metaphor, but turkeys-in-a-barrel is a much better description of streaming. Think about it — a few lucky birds wind up on top, a few underneath get some looks, but most of those turkeys are never seen or heard from again… because they suffocated… hey, enjoy your Thanksgiving! We’re going vegan.)

    Schadenfreude, to be sure, is a factor. Witness the Apple TV+ series with the most dollars and expectations thrown at it, The Morning Show, also getting the most brutal reviews. James Poniewozik, reaching for an obvious metaphor himself, compared it to “something assembled in a clean room out of good-show parts from incompatible suppliers.” I also saw a number of Sanford & Son references, e.g., “Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston can’t salvage...” (I did see one hardy contrarian argue that The Morning Show gets much better if you binge-watch until it's literally morning.)

    But the Apple TV+ debut that caught my eye was Dickinson. If you’re a certain college major of a certain gender, it probably caught your eye, too. I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Apple executives that a sexy fanfic show about young Emily Dickinson reaches a larger and more desirable demographic than a show about Matt Lauer (allegedly!).

    Fan fiction may not be the best way to describe Dickinson, but I think it captures the overall adoration of the poet that went into the making of this show. It’s also a way of saying that you have to make up stories because there’s relatively little we know about the real-life Emily. Basically there’s her verse, some letters that survived, and several decades of scholarship debating what it all means.

    And yet, an authoritative portrait of Dickinson has emerged over time. You can see it in the 2017 Cynthia Nixon biopic A Quiet Passion — a fiercely determined, deeply introverted, epoch-defining artist who lived a sheltered but hardly hermit-like existence in her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Before her death at 55, not even a handful of her 1700-plus poems had seen the light of day, so she never had a public persona to manage.

    Dickinson and her bestie Susan Huntington (played here by Ella Hunt) were intimate much of their lives, to the point of Sue marrying Emily’s brother so she could move in next door. So I wasn’t surprised that the show’s creator, Alena Smith, had decided to go all Jonathan-and-David with them. Dickinson also tries to appeal to its YA audience through more historically dubious storylines. Did Emily host the best raves in Amherst? Did she meet Thoreau and ask him to save a tree? Is “I have never seen Volcanoes” about an orgasm? Who knows? But these are harmless speculations.

    Look, it takes some gumption to escape the period-piece trap that has given us endless Helen Mirren. And this is the fun part of doing historical fiction. The score of Dickinson is heavy on the lady rockers with some Lizzo dropped in — basically an update of Katja von Garnier’s underrated suffrage flick Iron Jawed Angels. In the first episode, Emily’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death” appears as a dream where Death kindly stops for her in the form of Wiz Khalifa riding in a horse carriage. Later he offers her a massive joint that would impress even today’s English majors at Amherst. (“To comprehend a nectar/Requires lot of weed…”??)

    All of this is pretty engaging. But then at seemingly random moments Dickinson shape-shifts into a sitcom, and that’s where it loses me.

    Let’s start with Jane Krakowski, who is badly miscast as Emily’s mom. In real life, mother and daughter had a difficult relationship, but they did spend 55 years living under the same roof. That’s not the vibe I got from Krakowski, whose character feels more like the stepmom brought in to help with the cleaning. She blurts out things like, “It’s high time for you get a husband!” 

    Emily’s dad (Toby Huss) is even weirder, alternately tender and unhinged. Learning that her poetry is to be published in an Amherst student journal, he pounds the dinner table and screams, “My god! You will ruin the good name of Dickinson!” That seems unlikely, given that Mr. Dickinson had ambitions for his family and women writers were earning good coin across New England. Emily’s sibs, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and Austin (Adrian Enscoe), are more filled-out, being closer in age to the show’s target demo.

    But the most tin-eared aspect of Dickinson is the idea that Emily wasn’t a shy, fiercely brooding contemplative. No, here she’s a badass poetess who was held back by her sphere and uptight parents. Hey, I understand 21st-century audiences wanting to see Hailee Steinfeld breaking things and hell-yeah-I-do-poetry, but that’s simply not who she was. If you’re going to do a show based on a biographical figure we at least know a few things about (as opposed to, say, Sappho), why make her into someone completely different?

    And then there was the portrayal of Henry David Thoreau in the fourth episode. Though’s no evidence they ever actually met, Thoreau and Dickinson were literary soulmates. Each captured the romantic, idealistic tenor of pre-Civil War America, what was known as the Transcendentalist period. Here, however, John Mulaney is dragged in to trash the sage of Walden pond, portraying him as a hypocritical, egomaniacal “dick” (Emily’s word) who won’t even address Emily directly, claims to be self-sufficient yet has his mom do his laundry.

    Taking down Thoreau, really? I had to stop watching after that.

    Emily Dickinson had a window seat to one of the most fascinating moments of American history, at the intersection of Whig progress and Emersonian exuberance. She soaked it all in, and then in her loopy, metaphorical way she captured it for all eternity. That was a real life, and it deserves better than this cartoon treatment.

    All right Apple TV+, whatcha got next? Please don’t say Whitman.

    Are you watching Dickinson? Strike up a conversation with others doing the same in our forums.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Dickinson, Apple TV+, Hailee Steinfeld, John Mulaney