'Dickinson' is weird, whimsical, wild, and wonderful
Although Dickinson isn’t always the most original, its quirkiness keeps it highly entertaining for its entire first season.
Through the launch of Apple TV+, Dickinson wasn’t given as much attention as some of the shows that feature talent with more widely known names attached to it; however, it is the only show that’s being billed as a comedy from the new service and all 10 episodes of the first season are available right now.
I didn’t really know what to expect from Dickinson when I pressed play on the first episode, but once I started watching, I found myself grinning from ear to ear at its weird, wild, and whimsical take on the famous poet Emily Dickinson. Even though at times the show fell into some of the common traps that teen comedy/drama series seem to get stuck in, it mostly delivers a very entertaining first season.
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Spoiler Warning: Below I will be discussing events and scenes that take place in all 10 episodes of the show. I will try to avoid any major spoilers, but some spoilers will be inevitable. Proceed with that in mind.
Old-timey look with a modern-day feel
The premise of Dickinson can easily be summed up in one sentence — it’s a show about Emily Dickinson’s young adult life — but it’s the style of the show that’s worth talking about. Dickinson brazenly chose to mix a 19th century period piece with a modern style. All of that is to say, Emily Dickinson (along with the entire cast) acts and talks a lot like a modern-day millennial. If it sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is, and yet, it’s charming and wonderful to see the two worlds collide.
I don’t think the show would be nearly as interesting as it was without this unique twist on the format. Setting the show in a completely modern setting wouldn’t make any sense considering it is loosely based on what we know of Emily Dickinson’s life, but playing it as a straight period piece would likely be rather dull. There are specific moments in the show where this blending of modern and old-fashioned shines and provides some great comedic value.
“The blending of modern and old-fashioned shines and provides some great comedic value.”
For example, there’s a seen in the latter half of the season, where Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) is lightly teasing her soon-to-be sister-in-law Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). At this point, the relationship between the to has broken down; however, to Emily (and us the audience*), we don’t truly appreciate that breakdown until Sue utters the words “Eat shit, Emily.” It wasn’t a response that neither us as the audience nor Emily was expecting, and its a delightful and funny little shock to the system.
The blend of styles is occasionally a bit jarring — like when Emily Dickinson and all her friends start crumping at a party — but more often than not, the mixing of the two cultures keeps things fresh and interesting.
Some characters are more fleshed out than others
Showrunner, Alena Smith (who’s written for The Newsroom), is no stranger to writing a drama that is also funny. Some of the characters in Dickinson truly shine through as being complex and diverse characters with a lot of depth; however, some characters feel much more hollow.
While the dynamic between Emily and Sue is wrought with tension, passion, and nuance, there are also characters like George Gould (Samuel Farnsworth) who’s only purpose in the entire series is to be enamored with Emily to the point where all the drama the show tries to force between George and the rest of the cast comes off as somewhat fake. Of course, as a show with a strong female lead that certain has some great fenimist themes, I do get a sense that perhaps this was intentional. Writers have been writing maniac pixie dream girls into stories since the dawn of time, so why not switch gender roles here. If it was meant to be satirical in that manner, however, I’m not sure it fully hit the mark.
The good news is there is a lot of satirical content and comments on today’s society that ring true in Dickinson that are genuinely funny and thought-provoking. Although I am male and I can’t personally say I know what its like to be a woman in this day and age, the challenges this version of Emily Dickinson faces being a young woman in the 19th century sometimes don’t seem that far off from some of the challenges that women face today. I felt through the entire series that it was empowering to seeing Emily stick to her guns and bravely rebel against the social norms.
Dickinson is at its best when it’s whimsical
For a teen dramedy Dickinson at times takes itself seriously, and in those moments, the show can seem to drag a little bit — kind of like The CW’s Riverdale. It falls into the same traps of feeling like it always has to up the drama and intensity to be gripping, but Dickinson is way better when it leans into its whimsical and weird side.
“Dickinson is packed to the brim with wonderful moments where the show remembers just how wild and silly it can be.”
In the show, Emily has these dream-like sequences where she talks with death (played by Wiz Khalifa, of all people) and sees things that other people don’t, and its utterly absurd, but highly entertaining. Thankfully, the show leans into these moments more often than not and even likes to poke fun at historical characters. John Mulaney makes an appearance in a couple of episodes as Henry David Thoreau, and there’s no way his performance is intended to be historically accurate, but it’s wildly funny.
Dickinson is packed to the brim with beautiful moments where the show remembers just how wild and silly it can be, and that’s when the show is at its best. It’s fantastical and over-the-top, but it’s goddamn entertaining every time.
Final thoughts on season one
If you were hoping for a hard-hitting drama and historical accurate retelling of the real Emily Dickinson’s life, Dickinson would disappoint you. If you’re open to watching a whimsical and highly-stilized teen drama that looks through the 19th century with a modern day lens Dickinson will deliver in spades.
Not once watching the entire first season did I feel bored, and aside from a couple of times when the drama between characters seemed a little too forced, the characters are compelling, and the plot took a few interesting twists and turns along the way. I highly recommend that if you don’t mind a healthy does of silliness to check out Dickinson, the show has a lot to offer.