We Need to Talk About ‘Dickinson’

Disney+ is finally here! We’ve waited so long, we were promised so much, and the day has finally arrived. I hope you’re all enjoying your unlimited access to any and all Disney, Star Wars, and Marvel thing you could possibly ask for. So, I’m here to talk about the big hit from the latest new streaming service: Dickinson on Apple TV+.

*record scratch*

That’s right, I said it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore all the content Disney+ has to offer. But I’ve been waiting for this show since I first saw the trailer months ago, and it did not disappoint.

Dickinson features Hailee Steinfeld in the eponymous role, the great pre-Civil War American poet. The first episode’s voice-over opening gives you just enough background about the real life figure the show is based on and provides clues as to what events may come to pass throughout the show. Each episode is titled after one of her poems and gives insight into what could have been the inspiration for each. But if you think this is a boring show about a boring poet in the boring, boring, boring 19th century, you’ve got another thing coming.

Dickinson is full of energy and is very much filmed and scripted like a modern teen drama. After all, Emily is the original over-dramatic emo teenage girl and the show bears that out in its perspective. It is faithful to her life in spirit, if not in fact. As long as you don’t get yourself too hung up on the particulars of whether the events of the show really happened and happened in the way they are shown, you are in for a delightful ride. Most of the characters, including Emily herself, are at least slight caricatures of real people, which is just how the character of Emily would perceive them, with the exception of the people she truly feels for, whose characters are a lot more realistic. The main thrust of the show is Emily’s desire to be a poet, which is at war with being a woman of marriageable age at a time when society and her family feels that should be her only purpose. The show is given to flights of fancy, giving us trips inside Emily’s mind as she envisions herself as part of a circus sideshow, mixes modern dance moves in with more traditional steps, and goes on the occasional carriage ride with Death (as played, in a brilliant casting choice, by Wiz Khalifa). Lighthearted adventures mingle with deep feelings of sadness, loss, lack of fulfillment, and inescapable inevitability, all of which give the audience an idea of not just where each poem came from, but where Emily was coming from as an artist, a woman, and a person in the world.

Steinfeld’s performance is captivating. You may also recognize her mother, as played by Jane Kaczmarek of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame, or Matt Lauria, from Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, as her father’s clerk. The rest of the cast are relative unknowns, but each and every one is watchable and enjoyable and while the show presents the characters as caricatures, there is depth and humanity behind each one. The cast also affords us numerous opportunities to see many modern archetypes and what their lives could have been like in Emily’s time. There are drama queens, fuckbois, VSCO girls, and the kind of LGBTQ+ representation that is as comforting to see in 2019 as it would have been shocking in the 19th century. There are also a couple of brilliant cameos, including John Mulaney bringing his signature dry wit as a version of Henry David Thoreau and Zosia Mamet (from Girls) as an extremely practical version of Louisa May Alcott who gets some of the series’ best lines.

I’m a sucker for an anachronistic period comedy or really anything that makes centuries-old literature enjoyed by more scholarly nerds and makes it accessible to everyone. There’s a reason book nerds love this stuff; we tend to spend more time with it and enjoy breaking down and understanding the meaning behind the archaic text that proves a bar to entry for many. It’s been true since biblical times that there is “no new thing under the sun,” which might seem like a bummer if you see it as “there are no new stories to tell.” The more positive spin is that all the stories that have already been told are ones you know, and they just require a more modern interpretation for an audience to recognize them as something they like. Dickinson does so brilliantly and I hope it gets the chance to keep going many more seasons. As the introductory voice-over tells us, she’s one of history’s most prolific poets, despite being unpublished in her lifetime. There’s no shortage of source material there.

Dickinson ’s debut season is a tight witty 10 half hour episodes that you will want to devour one after the other. It takes the stuffiness out of an age that is often presented as such and makes it bright, fresh, and relatable. Overall, the show is charming and fun and sneakily educational. Of course, not all of us are able to afford subscribing to every service, but this one is worth borrowing a password for or signing up for a month so you have access to binge. From what I’ve heard, overall the original programming on Apple TV+ isn’t worth the price of admission so I’m hoping when the bubble bursts on this streaming service boom, this gem may end up somewhere else more accessible as well.

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