scorecardresearch Skip to main content

I didn’t love ‘Dickinson’ — until I did

Hailee Steinfeld and Finn Jones in “Dickinson,” now in its second season.Apple TV+

Sometimes I pick up a book, and I just can’t seem to board the train, if you know what I mean. But then months later, often years, I pick up the very same book, take a comfortable seat, and ride to the end of the line, longing to go further. The timing just wasn’t right the first time out — I was in an impatient mood, or I was looking for something more or less escapist, or the book felt out of sync, culturally or politically or emotionally, with the moment.

As a TV critic, I work to focus in on a new series regardless of any externals. I try to keep my judgment as immune to present-tense personal and public bents as much as I can — or I make note of those bents, which I’ve done a few times recently, as I’ve been more grateful for shows that offer escape from these most trying of trying times. But despite my efforts to be clear-headed, there are occasions, and I like to think they are rare, when I fail. I write a review that, later, I disagree with. Fortunately, I’m in the newspaper business, so I’m able to write about that show all over again, to set the record straight.


Yup, I’m taking back a published opinion — this time my initial go at “Dickinson,” the Apple TV+ period comedy-drama whose second season is currently being released weekly. My first review, a short one based on a few episodes, wasn’t entirely negative; even as I thought of the show as “a way to troll every lover of literature, history, and sanity,” I was “in awe of the nerve of it all.” But I was certainly dismissive, and, as I’ve come to see, hasty. A friend urged me to go back at the show; I did; and I kinda sorta fell in love with it, despite its excesses, of which there are many. I took a comfortable seat and rode the train to the end of the second season (I have advance press copies) — and now I’m waiting for season three, which has been commissioned by Apple TV+.

In retrospect, I was too eager to categorize the coming-of-age show, which stars Hailee Steinfeld as the mid-19th-century poet Emily Dickinson. I somehow needed it to be a historically accurate look at Dickinson, or a full-on contemporary take off of her life as a young woman. I wasn’t comfortable with the way “Dickinson” stuck to the mores and costumes of the time period and yet translated Emily’s daily life using today’s youth-culture tropes and visual storytelling effects — surreal flashes, sexual fluidity, hip phrases, “Euphoria”-like house parties, the comic appearances of famous people such as Timothy Simons’s Frederick Law Olmsted. The gleeful mashing together of then and now — oh look, it’s Wiz Khalifa in a carriage in granny glasses holding a joint and he just happens to be Emily’s notion of Death — threw me. I didn’t like seeing Emily transformed into a millennial rebel from the recluse we’ve assumed her to be. What is this, “Drunk History”?


Generally, I am the opposite kind of viewer — happy to find series that are hybrids of style and intention, thrilled by new amalgamations, eager to see TV writers stretch beyond easy definitions and conventional forms. I wholeheartedly embrace the trend in recent years to blend comedy and drama and to undo the traditional belief that dramas must be an hour long. Watching historical stories, I’ve rarely had a problem with factual liberties. And I’ve been a supporter of rule-breaking innovations when they work — the fourth-wall-breaking in “Fleabag,” the time-and-space anarchy of “The Good Place,” the fractured narrative of the first season of “Westworld,” the mockumentary (“The Office”), puzzle (“Lost”), and real-time (“24”) formats, etc.


But at that moment last fall, when the first season of “Dickinson” was released along with the launch of the Apple TV+ service, I was overwhelmed by the relentless playfulness. I felt the desire for less flashiness and pop music, more authenticity. The various approaches seemed to grate against one another, adding up to foolishness. Now, I see the series, created by Alena Smith, as a fantasia of storytelling modes, and they do add up to a lot more than a forced effort to be different or to make Dickinson cool for the kids.

They add up to a touching portrait of a brilliant young woman coping with the misogyny and gender expectations of her day, alongside her also-unconventional but very different younger sister (Anna Baryshnikov’s Lavinia). They add up to a look at an outsider forcing her parents to understand her, while she questions everything including, particularly this season, her own attraction to fame.

And, importantly, they add up to an homage to Emily’s poetry. The events in each episode don’t directly apply to each poem that we see on screen; that would be too pat. But they apply to ideas in each episode, and the readings of them at times determine the overall sense of rhythm in an episode. There are points when the characters seem to be speaking in breath-like fragments, too, like the poet, as her poems loom over everything. It’s a lovely facet of the show, which I am now happy to recommend, assuming you can handle some carefully deployed aesthetic anarchy.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.