Dickinson review: the wildest, weirdest, and most earnest show on Apple TV Plus – The Verge
If The Morning Show is Apple TV Plus’ crown-jewel prestige drama and See is its bet on sci-fi programming, Dickinson is its most fun. Circumventing Apple’s idea of what a prestigious show should look like brings some much needed carefreeness to the streaming platform.
The show finds Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) in the 1850s as she struggles to follow her dreams of becoming a poet at a time when female writers were frowned upon. Her father Edward (Toby Huss) sours at the idea of people in Massachusetts finding out she’s a writer, afraid of the shame she’ll bring to their family. Only two people support her ambitious desires: George Gould (Samuel Farnsworth), a local literary magazine editor who also wants to marry Emily, and Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt), her best friend turned secret lover.
Using period-accurate costumes and sets gives it a slightly prestigious feel, but the dialogue is deliberately contemporary. Characters speak to one another like they’re living in modern times, cursing at each other and saying things like, “What up, girl?” Though Dickinson feels like it’s nearing disaster at times, the show’s best moments come when it leans into its own absurdity: when a science experiment is used to simulate an orgasm, or a house party devolves into maelstrom as underage teens mess around with opioids, twerking to pulsating trap music.
Dickinson doesn’t have the boundary-pushing vulnerability of Euphoria, HBO’s popular teen drama that aired over the summer, but it’s unabashed in its admiration for youth culture. Teens in Dickinson are unapologetically teens. Relationships are intoxicating, self-discovery is angst-ridden, and the future is full of endless possibilities built on beautifully reckless dreams only teenagers can have.
Emily Dickinson’s poems are obsessed with youthful themes: fame, popularity, intense bouts of emotion and, of course, a fetishization of death. Her work isn’t changed in Dickinson. The stanzas are true to the source material. Modernizing the way characters speak to each other, but keeping the poems consistent, allows Dickinson’s words to feel more approachable for an audience that came into their own by way of Lil Peep Instagram live-streams and SoundCloud emo rap.
Most brilliantly, Dickinson isn’t trying to be a teen show. That’s precisely why it works as one. It kind of stumbles into itself, finding its footing along the way. There isn’t any clear direction or structure to help it stay on the same path. Dickinson doesn’t shy away from ludicrousness, but leans into it unabashedly. It’s an “unapologetic, crying on the floor at two in the morning, flirting with the fetishization of death even when floating on the undeniable highness of life” type of disaster.
That’s especially true when it comes to Emily’s forbidden relationship with Sue. Steinfeld and Hunt charm whenever they’re on-screen together, excellent at playing up grandeur expressions of their love for each other while putting just as much importance into the small gestures that cement their relationship. They’re giddy when with each other, full of sneaky kisses and uncontrollable giggles that define first loves.
Although their relationship is forbidden, made harder by Sue’s engagement to Emily’s brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe), it’s never tragic. Their obsession with each other is all-encompassing. Everything is carefree and in the moment. It’s not fraught with drama or cocooned in sadness the way other queer relationships on TV can be, especially with younger characters. Emily is upset by Sue’s engagement, but even that isn’t enough to drive them apart. They simply exist, together, now.
Dickinson is so unafraid of being itself that I found myself enamored by it, flaws and all, by the middle of the first episode. It’s one of the only Apple TV Plus shows that I wanted to revisit after watching the first three episodes provided to critics. More importantly, it’s the show I can’t wait to see start popping up on Tumblr. I can see the fan art already, and the fluff-filled fan fiction stories populating on Archive of Our Own. That’s whom Dickinson is for; it’s not The Morning Show or See. It’s for people trying to find something they can have a silly time with, and Dickinson does that in an undeniably enchanting way.
All Apple TV Plus shows are available to stream beginning November 1st. The service costs $4.99 a month.
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