You know teenagers: The minute their parents leave for a long weekend, they’re suddenly inviting friends over to dope out on opium.
This is, at least, the third episode plot of Apple TV+’s purported comic bildungsroman, Dickinson, a deliriously — and often uncomfortably — revisionist take on poet Emily Dickinson’s youth. I say “purported” because the bloated episodes from creator Alena Smith lack definable jokes, unless the mere dichotomy between fusty 19th century costumes and modern inflections like a synth pop soundtrack and anachronistic profanity is supposed to make you laugh. It didn’t make me laugh. As I watched Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and her friends dribble the poppy tears onto their tongues at a house party and gaily bop around like they’re on molly, I, a self-professed historian killjoy, couldn’t help but think of the slumped, lifeless bodies of an opium den.
Emily Dickinson, considered one of the preeminent American poets, reinvented the genre with her mordant wit, macabre spirit and creative grammar. She scribbled her word play on the random fragments of paper found around her house and rarely traveled anywhere beyond the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, dying at her father’s house after years of grim seclusion. She published fewer than a dozen (heavily edited) poems during her lifetime, and following her death, nearly 2,000 poems were salvaged from a maid’s trunk for posthumous publication.
Scholars have prodded, investigated and interpreted the “mysteries” of her life with even more ferocity than they have the conspiracy theories behind Shakespeare’s identity. Dickinson is a Rorschach test. Every person who peers into her mythos visualizes something different: weirdo recluse; virgin cult heroine; proto-goth; secret lesbian; or a thousand other personae. Smith’s Dickinson, though, is nothing short of petulant teen rebel.
Mopey Dickinson is the third adaptation of the poet’s life released since 2016, and while there’s real verve here compared to the cold drip of Terence Davies’ biopic A Quiet Passion or the awkward ellipses of Madeleine Olnek’s rom-com Wild Nights with Emily, the TV series comes off as a reductive, overly metaphoric and pseudo-feminist appropriation of Dickinson’s biography. The writing is well-informed by historical research, with episodes based on many real events from her early life. But in wanting to be both a serious teen drama and a black comedy simultaneously, the half-hour show instead comes off as tonally incongruous, awash in wry hipster flatness. Irony, though, is a tool — not a genre.
Steinfeld (True Grit, The Edge of Seventeen) stars as Emily, the brainy and bristling middle child of a respectable 1850s middle-class Amherst family. Her politician father and homemaker mother, played by Toby Huss (mean but vulnerable) and Jane Krakowski (somehow still in Jenna Maroney mode), have no patience for her scholarly ambitions and hope to marry her off as soon as possible. While Emily wishes she had more time to engage her intellect and complains about stultifying housework (“This is such bullshit,” she mewls, when told to fetch water), her biggest problem is one of the heart. By the end of the first episode, she finds herself in a love triangle with her bland brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe), when he proposes to her orphaned best friend/true love Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt).
As Emily falls into a passionate affair with Sue and contends with the small-town barbs of mean girls and unsupportive parents alike, she’s revealed as a tempest in a corset who macabrely imagines sexy carriage ride dates with Death (uh, Wiz Khalifa). In the pilot, she enlists the help of her brother’s infatuated friend George to publish a poem in the local lit magazine, against her parents’ wishes. (The real-life George Gould, editor of the Amherst College publication The Indicator, did, in fact, publish Dickinson’s first appearance in print.) In a later episode, she and Sue cross-dress to attend a lecture at the all-male college by the legendary geologist Edward Hitchcock and proceed to become aroused by the orgasmic imagery of a science experiment volcano. The show doesn’t actually have anything to say at all about her genius.
When Dickinson does work, it’s mainly due to Steinfeld’s loose, irreverent tenacity and the organic eroticism shared between her Emily and Hunt’s Sue, based on the probable real-life relationship Dickinson shared with her sister-in-law. (I did find some humor in a scene where a frustrated Emily must peel away at her many sartorial layers to confirm she’s had her period.)
At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder 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. While Steinfeld is an accomplished sarcastic firebrand, I kept imagining comedian Sophie Zucker in the role instead. Zucker plays Abby, a local popular girls’ sycophant with dorky-cool glasses, and even in the few minutes of her screen time, her comic dry wit and timing invokes the otherworldly tone Smith is going for but can’t quite extract from her star.
Indeed, I’m not quite sure who Dickinson will ultimately appeal to. Lest you think I’m a sourpuss, I will confess I am 100 percent the imagined audience for this: a nerd for teen comedies, costume dramas, queer mood pieces and anything even remotely related to my alma mater. Yet, what makes brilliantly unhinged modernistic period comedies like Another Period, Plebs, Drunk History and The Little Hours succeed is their ability to heighten and satirize. But here we’re privy to one solemn scene where Emily is hollered at by her misogynistic father for defying him and another where primped teens ballroom dance to Carnage’s hip-hop anthem “I Like Tuh.” (Sofia Coppola, what hath you wrought?!) I understand making broad, even hallucinogenic connections between the Then and the Now. But I’m not sure I ever desired Euphoria by way of Little Women.
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Hunt, Jane Krakowski, Toby Huss, Anna Baryshnikov, Adrian Enscoe, Samuel Farnsworth, Gus Birney
Executive Producer: Alena Smith, Michael Sugar, Ashley Zalta, Alex Goldstone, Darlene Hunt, Hailee Steinfeld, Paul Lee, David Gordon Green
Premieres: Friday, November 1st (Apple TV+)