Apple's 'Dickinson': What the Critics Are Saying

Ahead of Apple TV+'s Friday launch with its first wave of original content, the Hailee Steinfeld starrer Dickinson, a half-hour comedy about a young Emily Dickinson, looks to be the streamer's best reviewed series to date.

Though set in the mid-1800s, the show features the modern language and music one would expect from a 2019 series. The coming-of-age story follows the iconic poet's teenage years as she falls in love with best friend Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), who is engaged to marry the poet's bland brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Like any teen comedy, the show also sees clashes between Steinfeld's Dickinson and her politician father (Toby Huss) and homemaker mother (Jane Krakowski), and features some high-profile guest stars, like Wiz Khalifa playing Death, complete with a black top hat and ghostly carriage. 

Dickinson sits at a Metascore of 68 on Metacritic and 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. 

The Hollywood Reporter critic Robyn Bahr describes Dickinson as "Euphoria by way of Little Women," a "deliriously" revisionist take on Emily Dickinson's youth that comes off "as a reductive, overly metaphoric and pseudo-feminist appropriation of Dickinson's biography." While many of the stories are well-researched and based off of real events from Dickinson's life, the series struggles in wanting to be both a serious teen drama and black comedy, Bahr says, and "the half-hour show instead comes off as tonally incongruous, awash in wry hipster flatness. Irony, though, is a tool — not a genre."

While Bahr does applaud Steinfeld's "loose, irreverent tenacity and the organic eroticism shared between her Emily and Hunt's Sue," she wonders "what the show would be like if the producers had embraced a more eccentric quality in Emily and had hired a comedic actor to play her."

CNN's Brian Lowry questions the decision to "devote a series to this complex historical figure, then turn it into a knockoff of Riverdale," and adds, "Steinfeld is an appealing young star, but she deserves a better vehicle than this one."

Vulture's Kathryn VanArendonk had much more positive things to say about the Dickinson origin story, describing it as one that "imagines her as a rebellious queer, goth goofball. She is too death-obsessed to fall into the trap of the blockheaded Badass Feminism in Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, and she’s too snide and whiny to be mistaken as a heroic figure." VanArendonk calls Steinfeld's take on the character "messy and horny and smart and very, very fun to watch," and she also compares the Dickinson treatment to Nancy Drew and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, which reimagines classic characters as real people with sex lives. 

The series is so full of gags, VanArendonk adds, that "if in a future season Cardi B shows up playing Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it would feel entirely appropriate." 

Slate's Willa Paskin writes that while it's hard to imagine this character could grow up to become any kind of poet, let alone one like Emily Dickinson, "the show is unassuming and charming, mixing things up to convey the jarring weirdness of being ahead of one’s time," noting that it would likely "be a hit on Netflix." 

Time's Judy Berman calls Dickinson "the most promising show to come out of Apple TV+'s initial lineup," which she describes as "a bonkers show" with Steinfeld's character coming across as "Aubrey Plaza with a sugar high." While "kind of a mess," as it veers "between empathetic depictions of its hero’s struggles against the social norms of her time and slapstick humor," Berman says, "it’s never boring."

Paste's Alexis Gunderson thinks Dickinson herself would be a fan of the "so fun and so strange" series, as "you could watch thousands of hours of television and still not think to expect, of course, the Dickinson who scrawled out 'Wild nights – Wild nights!' and left behind thousands of scraps of genius in a locked chest would dig it."

Though there are moments, like Khalifa's appearance, where "it feels likely that Apple is trying to buy the affections of a Gen Z audience through clout rather than substance," it fits because of the balancing act between old and modern times; as Gunderson says, "the story of being human is timeless. So why not throw a rager?" Led by strong performances, cinematography and costuming, she forecasts "that Dickinson will be one of the brightest debuts of 2019."

IndieWire's Libby Hill writes that after a rocky pilot episode, Dickinson settles into its coming-of-age comedy roots by the third episode, though requiring viewers to "disabuse yourself of the notion that it has anything to do with posthumous poetry goddess and all-around depressive Emily Dickinson" in order to make sense of it. The series also draws cues from 2006's Marie Antoinette, Hill says, "with its subtle observations about class and societal expectations potentially overshadowed by exquisite production values and modern music."

Hill also commends Steinfeld and Hunt's performances and "the casual depiction of Emily and Sue’s relationship," with a "priority placed on female sexual appetite provides a safe haven for teens looking for more representational and mature fare."

Collider's Allie Gemmill estimates that after its release, "Dickinson is going to be the talk of the town," targeting fans of Big Little Lies as well as Pride and Prejudice with a series that is "feisty, youthful, queer, eccentric — a damn good time overall." Steinfeld's casting "is one of the best calls I've been treated to in recent memory," Gemmill says, as she's "bringing forth a low-key rebellious spirit I could only dream of having at her age." 

The AV Club's Shannon Miller says Dickinson "blends the evergreen charm of similarly framed period tales ... with the unabashedly modern tone of Drunk History," and Miller celebrates Krakowski’s role as Emily's lofty mother, having "genuine fun with the more extreme, caricature-like aspects of Mrs. Dickinson, adding to the show’s favorable proclivity to not take itself too seriously."

Miller also addressed the show's use of hip-hop, aside from Khalifa's appearance, which she says is "intriguing" to reflect how Dickinson "held such a deep fascination with death that she wrote over 500 poems on the subject, having the concept manifest as a chill, velvet-toned, blunt-wielding arbiter of peace is somehow equal parts corny and soothing."

TV Guide's Liam Matthews adds that with the first two episodes directed by David Gordon Green and the third by Lynn Shelton, "the show looks fantastic, with meticulous period detail and an HBO-like sheen. This is one where Apple's money paid off."

Dickinson is set to bow Friday, with all 10 episodes available at the Apple TV+ launch.