The stakes are high for “Dickinson,” one of Apple TV+’s most hotly-anticipated new titles. Billed (and ridiculed) as a millennial-friendly retelling of Emily Dickinson’s life, the show from Alena Smith follows the young writer as she struggles to find her voice in a society intent on ignoring women. The show is intentionally ahistorical: Emily calls her household chores “bullshit,” somebody literally says the word “woke,” there is a sexting plotline. It is supposed to be charming. It is not.
From the very beginning, Emily Dickinson enthusiasts will find it difficult to turn off the pedantic part of their brains when the series’ cast mispronounces Amherst (Ammerst, not Am-HERST) or uses the phrase “hang out.” Not because such choices are deliberately anachronistic – Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” is one example of period-inaccuracy done charmingly well – but because they are symptomatic of the show’s greatest flaw. In all its willful, you-go-girl rebellion against period drama tropes, “Dickinson” becomes so scattered that it eschews basic plotting, coherence, or watchability.
Emily’s love life is a perfect example. She spends the first half of the series besotted with her best friend and soon-to-be-sister-in-law, Sue (Ella Hunt). They passionately make out in the rain within the series’ first 20 minutes; Sue gives Emily her first orgasm to Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl.” (You can begrudge this show many things, but this musical choice is not one of them.) Yet, once Sue gets tied up in a hideously shallow sexual assault plotline elsewhere, Emily immediately forgets her in favor of Ben (Matt Lauria), a manic pixie dream paralegal who doesn’t believe in marriage (and is maybe gay himself, but don’t worry about it). The show can’t even turn this bewildering change of heart into a tired love triangle, instead “resolving” it with somehow stranger choices – choices which, at best, muddle the seriousness of Emily and Sue’s relationship.
“Dickinson” is a lot like a hot new bar in Brooklyn. The patrons have great taste in comedy (Jason Mantzoukas and John Mulaney are notable guest stars, alongside recurring player Jane Krakowski), and impeccable song choices almost distract you from the air of performative liberalism. Everyone is sexually ambiguous. Wiz Khalifa is somehow there. But despite its superficial allure, the bartender gives you a Styrofoam cup of hot eggnog when you ordered an Aperol spritz, and you walk out into Bushwick twenty dollars poorer and seriously questioning your taste.
The patrons of Bar Dickinson aren’t wholly repugnant: Anna Baryshnikov is hilarious as Emily’s vain sister, and Hailee Steinfeld is really, really trying. But while Steinfeld can expertly dance between goofy and dramatic deliveries, the show is so unsure whether it is a feminist drama or a 19th-century “Riverdale” satire that she comes out of it with bloody feet.
Perhaps this is because “Dickinson” has no idea who its audience is. It is about as feminist as a T-shirt that reads, “FEMINIST.” It is about as gay as your average CW protagonist. And it is barely about Emily Dickinson or poetry, a statement that probably leads you to wonder what, then, this show is about, but after watching the first season, that’s still not clear. “Dickinson” is inane to the point of pointlessness. And in an era of actually competent female-led period pieces like “Gentlemen Jack” and “Alias Grace,” Apple should have just left poor Emily alone. [D]