In 2019, the new streaming service Apple TV + released a trailer for “Dickinson,” which framed the enigmatic 19th-century American poet’s story as a contemporary melodrama for young adults, with a soundtrack. – its powerful ballad and the remarkable use of the honorary “Dude”. “The show looked ridiculous. Of course, I had to watch it.
In the first season, Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) hitchhikes with Death (played by rapper Wiz Khalifa), damn a pompous Henry David Thoreau (John Mulaney) and dances with a hallucination of a giant bee (Jason Mantzoukas) while full of opium. Yes, I realized, this is ridiculous. Ridiculously brilliant.
Apple TV + ‘s first major series, created by Alena Smith, takes up the challenge many high school English teachers have: trying to convince a new generation that a name from American Lit programs was a carnal person, with passions as urgent as ours, living in an unruly period of cultural turmoil and political upheaval.
This kind of effort will inevitably give you the impression that the instructor is pulling a chair back and saying to the children, “Let’s rapp.” But Smith and her company have produced a work that, like poetry itself, risks producing something dazzling – a literary superheroine origin story that’s intoxicating, funny, and emotional, very serious about her subject but not very serious about her.
“Dickinson” presents the aspiring poet of twenty years – a millennium from another millennium – drunk with words and irritation against a bourgeois family from Amherst who does not know what to do with her. She is in love with death (“He’s a gentleman. Sexy as hell”) and her brother’s fiancee, Sue (Ella Hunt), whom the poet has written with dedication in real life.
The series immerses you in an 1850s version of such a deliberately anachronistic tone that you might expect someone to pull an iPhone out of the folds of their dress. Hip-hop works on the soundtrack; the characters don’t give a damn about “Bleak House” as if it were a Netflix series. (“I’m such an Esther!” Says Emily’s sister Lavinia, played by Anna Baryshnikov.)
It all borders on the self-parody of “Drunk History”. (Jane Krakowski’s casting as Emily’s mother briefly passes “Dickinson” as something her character, Jenna Maroney, would have played as a cutaway joke on “30 Rock.”)
But it works, thanks to an exuberant voice, the playful character of the half-hour episodes and the passion of the protagonist’s verses, which appear on the screen as written on fire. Steinfeld plays Emily as a devious rebel possessed by forces she only partially understands; it is a literary biography in the form of a supernatural dramatic comedy by WB.
During the first season, the poet unites her powers and discovers the challenges of women in the literary world of the 19th century through a series of encounters, including a Christmas dinner with the ambitious Louisa May Alcott (Zosia Mamet), who trash-talking Nathaniel Hawthorne, loves to run (“That’s a fact about me”) and ponders the plot of “Little Women”, looking for a page turner to “make that money”.
Season 2, the first three episodes of which arrive Friday, grapples more directly with the real-life mystery at the heart of the series. The real Emily Dickinson, as a prologue to the pilot tells us, only published a few poems and spent much of her late life alone in her bedroom. Why would a brilliant and motivated poet resist fame?
The season opens in 1859 with the arrival of the famous 1850s machine – a newspaper, the Springfield Republican – which hits Amherst like the arrival of the Internet, its pages brimming with politics, commerce and gossip.
The newspaper also transforms the idea of literary fame; a series of presses and your words are in front of the thousands. Its pretentious and distinguished editor, Samuel Holmes (Finn Jones), is interested in the publication of Emily’s work.
For viewers of the influencer generation, for whom attention is a supposed good, the fact that it didn’t end in an eternal happy literary celebrity suggests something must have gone wrong – Emily must have been held back.
And yes, she still has to deal with an ophthalmologist she visits for eyestrain (James Urbaniak), who laughs when she tells him she’s a writer: “You might want to stop doing so many things!” (On the other hand, her lawyer-politician father, a pleasantly suffocating Toby Huss, gradually comes to appreciate, if not understand, his daughter’s addiction to his word.)
But the season suggests that Emily’s retirement was also internal work. She begins to see visions of a ghostly young man, who identifies himself as “Nobody”, the embodiment of perhaps her most famous poem, a rejection of publicity. “Fame is not genuine,” he says. “It will use you. It will destroy you.
Does she hear her own voice here, or that of the outside world? All those dashes em in his verses – do they represent a breathless race to be heard? – or a desire for the silences that fall between words? Emily seems to have more and more doubts about herself as a person, even as she becomes more confident as an artist; doubt, suggests “Dickinson”, may be inseparable from his art.
The running device of Nobody’s appearance makes Season 2, while still being very funny, a more serious and spooky outing. The same goes for advancing real-life history, as the Civil War draws closer.
Emily’s poetry increasingly resembles a shoot, as if her vivid imagery (all those divided larks and stares of agony) are tapping into savage forces that will soon be unleashed upon the land. The season also uses the approach of war to build its black abolitionist characters, though their stories still feel peripheral among the show’s privileged white New Englanders.
Viewers and academics can, of course, discuss the accuracy of “Dickinson”. (Suppose the giant bee is fictional.) But I’m more interested in his ideas of history, freedom, creativity as a wild gift and some kind of drug. Beyond that, as “Dickinson” himself puts it in the opening of Season 2, there is little solid documentation of this period in the poet’s life.
All of this frees up this show to take on a poetic license – to speak its version of the truth, but to put it oddly, deliciously tilted.