Note: This article was first published on 28th October 2019.
“Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She lived throughout her life in her father’s house. Near the end of her life, she rarely left her own room. Aside from a few mostly anonymous verses, she remained unpublished. When she died, her poems were discovered. Some of the strangest, most fascinating poems ever written. Almost 2,000 of them, hidden in a maid’s trunk.”
This recounting, accompanied by some photos from a slide projector, is how Dickinson, one of several original series to premier alongside the new Apple TV+ service, begins its first episode.
In fact, that’s about the most biopic element you’ll get from the series: the instant Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) utters “This is such bullshit” just two minutes in, the aforementioned intro of the legendary poet is quickly forgotten.
Written and co-executive produced by Alena Smith, known for her work on dramas such as Showtime’s The Affair and HBO’s The Newsroom, and plays such as The Bad Guys (Second Stage Theatre), Plucker (Southwark Playhouse) and Icebergs (Geffen Playhouse), this U-turn is perhaps not surprising. Necessary even, because this allows Dickinson to be bold, provocative, funny and awkward in equal parts. (Reminder: Apple sees this as a comedy series.)
The plot is straightforward. Set in the 19th century, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (in her mid-20s) is viewed by those around her as a weirdo: she hates doing household chores, doesn’t sit like a lady, drops colourful language without qualms, has no desire to get married, contemplates about hell when she's free, craves for knowledge and aspires to be a great writer.
The easy conclusion is that she’s ahead of her time and our society has progressed a lot since then; but really, would she have met with fewer frowns or obstacles if she’s living in 2019? It’s an uncomfortable thought I kept having as I watched this modern feminist retelling of the American poet.
By now a master of portraying characters who are not afraid to break rules, stare down adversity and win hearts at the same time, Hailee Steinfeld is perfect for the Emily Dickinson role. Hilarious one moment, melancholy the next, she proves that the wide emotional range she displayed in The Edge Of Seventeen in 2016 hasn’t deserted her.
Her lines are also purposefully modern, more so than the rest of the cast. Words that you can imagine coming from a millennial instead of a Victorian girl who lived over 130 years ago. (“Nothing, bro. Just chilling” is just one example.) But it’s fitting too, considering that it was only until 1955 that Dickinson's complete and mostly unedited body of works was published. To many of Dickinson’s readers, she is contemporary.
Jane Krakowski (no stranger to fans of comedy series such as Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and NBC’s 30 Rock) also puts in a strong, multi-layered performance as Emily’s aloof mother. An embodiment of everything that her elder daughter hates, Mrs. Dickinson rates herself as the best housewife in all of New England, thinks that a wife’s duty is to keep the husband happy, and considers women (Emily, basically) who can’t do chores “useless”. (Does all this sound familiar to you?)
I particularly enjoy Mrs. Dickinson’s interactions with her husband, Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss). Clearly a responsible husband, he’s no less a male chauvinist who believes that woman shouldn’t receive the same education as man because it can’t be applied to her eventual “career” (i.e., a wife and mother). Towards Emily, he's conflicted: he dotes on her and sees her talent, but he simply can't get over this hurdle that's proper decorum.
And then there’s Austin and Lavinia, Emily’s older brother and younger sister respectively. Like most of the supporting cast, they can be both likeable and detestable.
For instance, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) prides herself for being a good help around the house but often wonders if her obedience (to her mother) is hurting her chance to find a husband. (The Lavinia in real life remained unmarried until her death, by the way.) And Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) is the caring but privileged brother who gets to study and doesn’t need to wake up at 4AM in the morning to fetch water like his sisters because he is a boy. The Dickinsons is a very real family.
There’s also Susan Gilbert (Ella Hunt), Emily’s closest confidant and Austin’s wife-to-be. While everyone I’ve mentioned so far plays a role in making Emily the most famous Dickinson ever, Sue’s contribution is perhaps the greatest.
Visually, Dickinson’s heightened colour palette, while no longer groundbreaking in period dramas today, is still refreshing to see. I especially like that Emily goes to her rendezvous with Death dressed in red and the transgression under the apple tree. Even the Easter eggs are multifaceted. Like the one that informs viewers what Death is smoking. Never mind the clue itself is historically inaccurate, because the Grim Reaper’s vice, I think, is never the point.
Slight unevenness in pacing and a whiff of a teen flick aside, Dickinson remains an honest piece of work. It’s a historical drama that’s current too, because the many issues that creator Alena Smith tries to tackle are very much alive today. Even the music selection is au courant and rousing. (Billie Eilish's "bury a friend" is now in my Apple Music playlist, thanks to the show.) Add to all this very believable performances from Hailee Steinfeld and Jane Krakowski and I think Dickinson is well worth all the half hours you can afford.
Dickinson premiers Nov 1 (Nov 2 SGT) exclusively on Apple TV+. Other than requiring an Apple TV+ subscription (S$6.98/month after a 7-day free trial), you will also need a device that has the new Apple TV app, which can be an Apple TV, an iPhone, an iPad, an iPod touch or a Mac. (Customers who purchase any iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, iPod touch or Mac starting Sep 10 can enjoy one year of Apple TV+ for free.) The Apple TV app is also available for several non-Apple devices, including most of Samsung’s 2019 smart TVs, Roku and select Amazon Fire TV devices.
(Note: This review is left unrated on purpose because I’ve only watched three out of the ten episodes. As such, giving it a final score would be disingenuous — like rating the next episode of Star Wars based on trailers.)
Update, Nov 2: After watching the whole of season 1, my final rating for Dickinson is: B+.
I write. I also fix things.