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Dickinson has been a wonderfully weird show that has recontextualized poet Emily Dickinson and her work

  • The Apple TV+ comedy from Alena Smith debuted two years ago with a stable of shows that made more of a splash, from The Morning Show to For All Mankind to See. "While the others had their partisans (though I’ve never actually met a fan of See), Dickinson was the surprising early breakout, earning an instant, vocal fan base and paving the way for Apple’s success in the comedy niche with shows like Ted Lasso and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet," says Judy Berman. "In retrospect, I think Smith’s bizarre creation caught on—amid so many voluminous streaming slates padded out with interchangeable titles—because it felt so alive and impassioned, in all its messiness. That emotional momentum kept building, and now it suffuses the show’s third, final and most ambitious season. Rooted in an intelligent, wild, sensuous performance from Steinfeld (who is also an executive producer), Dickinson remixes facts, hypotheses, rumors and daydreams about the famously reclusive poet’s life into a buoyantly implausible family dramedy." Berman adds: "Smith has also increasingly worked to give this story a worldview beyond the Dickinsons’ cosseted household. In its final stretch, she ties the Amherst home front to the battlefield by entwining Emily’s story with that of her neighbor Henry (Chinaza Uche), a Black, abolitionist journalist from seasons past, who goes south to aid the Union cause and ends up teaching literacy to formerly enslaved soldiers (whom white abolitionists are suspiciously hesitant to arm). In making this connection, Dickinson leaves us with a message for our own times. Even in the darkest days, words matter."


    • Dickinson kicks off its third and final season having gained "imitators"/"peers" in The Great and Bridgerton: The Apple TV+ series has been overshadowed by The Morning Show and Ted Lasso. But over three seasons, Dickinson has come into its own, says Alison Herman. "Compared to the nuance of Dickinson’s work, the simple binary of Dickinson’s plot proved an imperfect tribute, nor did the earnestness jibe with its playful approach," says Herman. But as its protagonist found her artistic voice, Dickinson grew into its own. Crucially, the question of when and how Emily would make herself known shifted from an external problem to an internal one. In Season 2, Emily meets a potential patron: Samuel Bowles (Finn Jones), a seductive newspaper editor who promises a platform and the fame that comes with it. Emily has to decide whether opening up to the world is truly what she wants, an abstract question Dickinson explores with imaginative flair. In one standout episode, Emily turns invisible the day her first poem is (anachronistically) published in the Springfield Daily Republican, observing the fallout from a supernatural remove. She eventually decides she’s not ready to allow access to her intellectual domain and takes her poems back from Bowles. By the finale, Emily’s privacy was reframed as a way to protect her vision—a triumph, not a tragedy, and most importantly, her choice. While Dickinson improved, it also earned imitators, or at least peers. The year after its debut, Hulu debuted The Great, a savage spoof of Russian monarchs in the style of The Favourite. Then came Bridgerton, the Shondaland smash that ripped bodices to the tune of Taylor Swift. These shows differed in theme and tone, but they shared a distinctive MO: stories about young women in the past, told with the values, humor, and often music of the present. In just a few years, the genre grew established enough to earn essay-length analyses in literary journals. The trend also helped clarify the differences between the shows as much as their similarities. Dickinson may be tongue-in-cheek, but that tongue isn’t acid, at least compared to The Great’s mean streak. And while Bridgerton is happy to operate within the Regency era’s rigid social norms—apart from some pointed adjustments to its attitude on race—Dickinson is more rebellious. Its Emily yearns to break free of stuffy New England society, and Dickinson wants to help her. With Season 3, Dickinson becomes the first of these shows to reach its conclusion...At its core, Dickinson is a family sitcom, and like many TV series, it gained depth as it built its characters over time. Dickinson doesn’t exactly forgive Edward for his retrograde politics, but it softens him into a flawed, shortsighted man who loves his daughter. And while Jane Krakowski is one of the best comic actors we have, as Emily’s mother, she’s also the heart of the season; in grieving the death of her character’s sister, she brings the national mood of mourning into the Dickinson home. The Dickinson in Dickinson was never just Emily. The poet already had her fans. Dickinson made more, but also built something of its own."
    • Hailee Steinfeld went from looking like a shaky choice as Emily Dickinson to having the definitive portrayal: "When Season 1 premiered on Apple TV+, the concept of Hailee Steinfeld leading the series as the famously reclusive poet felt like a shaky choice, especially as it initially seemed more like a return to her dramatic debut in period Western True Grit," says Kristen Lopez. "But she has turned this character into the definitive Emily Dickinson portrayal, presenting a passionate and sensitive writer who desperately wanted to leave an impact even if it cost her a personal life. Steinfeld has portrayed the poet going through a series of heady emotions, but this season sees Emily at her most emotional because there’s so much she cannot change. Her family is falling apart and her desire to write ends up butting heads with her desires for a personal life because there’s only so much time. Emily has always battled between her creative spirit and her teenage/early 20’s sense of selfishness, which comes to a head here as Sue is set to deliver a child and the war impinges upon everyone. Emily just wants to write a poem with significance, but obligations to her lover, her father, and others are pulling her in different directions. Steinfeld’s Emily has to keep a smile on her face as she tries to fix open veins with Band-Aids."
    • Creator Alena Smith reflects on Dickinson's three-season run: “In Season 3 we’ve lived through a lot with these characters, we’ve all grown and changed and their relationships have certainly deepened over time, and to just honor all of that history was really rewarding,” Smith tells Variety. “To me, this whole series is really one work of art. In some ways the ideal way for someone to experience Dickinson would be to start with Episode 1 and just watch it all the way through because it’s telling one story; there’s pieces of the ending that are there in the first episode. I think it’s really wonderful when something can have a beginning, middle and end and do what it came to do and say when it came to say, and I really feel like we got to do that with Dickinson."
    • Haillee Steinfeld on portraying Emily Dickinson in the midst of the Civil War: "I personally was feeling the hopelessness of the time," says Steinfeld. "And with Emily, I felt she was in a similar situation because she’s really struggling to find how she can be of use to the the war effort — and not just the war in the country, but in her family. I was like, 'In what way, shape or form can I do something?' This season served as a lesson and a reminder that Emily didn’t necessarily have to be on the front lines to help and to make change and to make a difference and to bring light into people’s world."

    TOPICS: Dickinson, Apple TV+, Alena Smith, Hailee Steinfeld