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The Surreally Comic Teen World of ‘Dickinson,’ Apple TV’s Surprise Hit

Dickinson tells the story of poet Emily Dickinson’s life, albeit through a modern lens.  Series creator Alena Smith banished the stodgy spinster with a penchant for white gowns and seclusion, and replaced her with a majorly woke bae railing against the patriarchy while turning out fine rhymes. In doing so, she created Apple TV’s surprise buzz hit.

When Apple chose to enter the streaming market via its Apple TV Plus, they threw billions into the effort, pushing prestige shows with hefty budgets, presuming their brand would sell their shows. Their most concentrated promotional efforts centered on The Morning Show, a soapy drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell which cost at least $15 million per episode to produce. Eager critics waited, watched, and said, “Meh.” Viewers concurred.

Like The Morning Show, Dickinson stars an award-winning actress pulling double duty as a producer, and is loosely based on actual people and events. Sort of. It may be one of the strangest shows in streaming.

Going into it, I anticipated something akin to the CW’s (now defunct) absurdly trashy teen steamer Reign.  However, instead of mocking wooden acting and wonky accents, I found myself completely sucked in to a lavishly-produced, cleverly-directed, and entirely surreal experience. Of course, the teen show tropes remain reassuringly in place. Youngsters frolic, kiss, and finger one another with abandon while pondering life, love, and how much their parents just don’t understand. Billie Eilish and Lizzo tracks reinforce the overall abounding girl power and hipness. This is all familiar terrain. But then, Wiz Khalifa shows up as Death, whisking Emily away for a midnight ride in a carriage pulled by ghostly CGI horses. His omniscient narration makes it clear that we’re in for an anything-but-conventional journey.

Because I would not stop for death: Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa in ‘Dickinson’.

As Emily, Hailee Steinfeld holds the screen. A lesser actor would fail either the character or the material, but Steinfeld balances them both. Her Emily Dickinson is a weirdo outsider constrained by the limits of her world. Society prohibits a relationship with her true love, her brother’s fiancé Sue, while her father forbids her pursuit of her true passion, poetry. The viewer palpably feels the weight of these denials that Emily carries in her soul, and understands why Death captivates her. He’s the only certain path to freedom in her life.

The supporting cast gamely takes on the material to varying degrees of success.

Anna Baryshnikov’s convincing portrayal of Emily’s flighty sister Lavinia adds dimension to the world, and her storylines carry some heft.  A restrained Ella Hunt, as Sue, feels more like a cipher onto whom the Dickinsons can dump feelings than an actual person. So far, as Emily’s mom, an underused Jane Krakowski comes across more like a character Jenna Maroney might play in a period piece than a necessary to this world. Toby Huss does his best as Emily’s father, but perhaps gives a bit too much, as he often overdelivers his lines. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. This show consistently works despite itself.

Dickinson plays its comedy straight, and gleefully revels in every anachronism; it takes itself seriously without being overly serious. In one episode, those crazy Dickinson kids throw an unchaperoned party. Lavinia’s love interest steps into the room and declares, “Let us get this party COMMENCED!” Emily shares her opium, waltzing morphs into twerking, and everyone lasciviously makes out. The overt messaging feels sincere but not clunky. Teen shows rarely pull off this feat.

Plenty of weird unfurls within this world as well. Aside from Death traipsing around town with Emily, she frequently hallucinates a friendly, human-sized bee (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), and, at one point, John Mulaney randomly shows up to chew the scenery as mama’s boy Henry David Thoreau, a man so lonely he converses with green beans. Emily’s unfettered imagination produces surreally Lynchian dreams of trippy landscapes and it seems like someone should definitely be talking backwards.

It’s likely we’ll delve further into Emily’s mind during season two, as Apple has already renewed it for another block of episodes. There truly is nothing quite like this anywhere else on broadcast or streaming TV, so it feels like this storytelling could go anywhere, including right off the rails. Such fearlessness creates compelling entertainment. Ultimately, with Dickinson, it’s apparent Apple did what it always does—they created a product we didn’t realize we wanted, and turned it into something we need.

Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer cast and shaped storylines for several episodes of Love It Or List It. If you shop for a high-end home in North Carolina or plan an extravagant jaunt to Italy, her words may subtly sway your choices. In her spare time, she crams all possible media into her brain, and intermittently live tweets about “The Bachelor”.

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