First look Apple TV+ review: Dickinson
Ivan Radford | On 01, Nov 2019Reading time: 3 mins
This spoiler-free review is based on the opening two episodes of Dickinson.
“Because I could not stop for death…” begins Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) in the new Apple TV+ comedy Dickinson. It’s only a matter of minutes until death himself really does turn up in a black carriage to kindly stop for her. And the way you respond to that literal interpretation of the iconic poet’s work will likely dictate how you respond to this bizarre, but bizarrely entertaining, TV show about her.
Inspired by the life of Dickinson, who was largely unpublished and unknown until after she passed away, the comedy takes all the facts we know about the writer and then throws them out the window in favour of some very silly jokes. And so we join her in 19th century Amherst, where the young author spends her time refusing to do the housework for her family, sighing at the boy who’s interested in her and dreaming of becoming a famous author. Along the way, she finds a romantic spark with her best friend, Sue (Ella Hunt), who is meant to marry her brother, and chats to Death (played by Wiz Khalifa) as she hitches a ride in his carriage.
Some of this is actually happening and some of it is in a dream, but where a more conventional sitcom, such as Scrubs, would clearly delineate the two, Dickinson doesn’t bother with such things as narrative convention, preferring to breeze along as anachronistically and idiosyncratically as possible. That means sequences soundtracked to Lizzo and the liberal use of modern slang, even if everyone else around Emily speaks and behaves more in keeping with the period setting.
If that sounds inconsistent, you’re right, and displaying Dickinson’s poems on screen as she composes the lyrics based on very literal illustrations of them doesn’t quite square the circle as a convincing biopic. But there’s also an intangible pleasure at watching this literary oddity unfold, as it repeatedly surprises, never pauses for breath and never, for one second, bores.
That’s partly down to the script by Alena Smith, which blends biographical fact with high-school antics, burgeoning gay romance and frequently absurd flourishes. Directors such as David Gordon Green and Lynn Shelton also bring a laidback indie feel to the historical period – not unlike Amazon’s coming-of-age comedy Red Oaks.
The cast, though, are what really make it work. Hailee Steinfeld is 100 per cent earnest as the young writer, who is so caught up in her own wistful desires that she doesn’t see how privileged she is – nicely contrasted by Sue, whose family have all died, leaving her in no illusion as to what’s previous and important in life. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Jane Krakowski is enjoyably hyper yet stoic as Emily’s house-proud mum, while Adrian Blake Enscoe and Anna Baryshnikov are suitably bewildered as Emily’s siblings, Austin and Lavinia.
The show is stolen, however, by Toby Huss (Halt and Catch Fire) as Edward Dickinson, Emily’s soft but stern father, who wants to encourage his daughter but can’t help but stomp all over her in the process. Like her, he has his own personal aims and goals, and the duo form a nice pair of opposites through which to consider the constraints of society, gender and family in 19th century America. Dickinson doesn’t quite manage that with the lucid, sharp satire you’d like, as it races from actual volcanoes to breathless bedroom rumblings, but there’s every sign that the edge and cutting wit of Emily – captured more harshly in the biopic A Quiet Passion – is waiting under the surface to mature. Whether it reaches that point or not, the journey will certainly be entertaining to watch.
Dickinson is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.