Apple TV+’s bizarre fusion of biopic with coming-of-age dramedy is off-kilter but entirely its own thing, positioning Dickinson as perhaps the unlikely highlight of the platform’s debut.
Now that we’re a day into the official deployment of Apple’s frontline regiment in the Streaming Wars, you can more or less see the shape of things. Having evidently taken the Scrooge McDuck approach to financing its original content, Apple has some bases covered. The Morning Show is their answer to HBO-style prestige dramas; See is their absurdly well-budgeted genre property; For All Mankind their speculative what-if alternate-future political experiment. Oprah is mothering America’s novelists. Elephants are being chased by climate change. These are big, attention-grabbing releases, designed explicitly to appeal to certain subsections of the TV-watching masses. But Dickinson is different. It’s a teen-focused biopic spliced with a period coming-of-age drama that knows it’s bonkers and doesn’t care. It isn’t trying to make friends. It’s doing its own thing in the corner, confident that people will gravitate to its off-kilter spirit and earnest enthusiasm. I hope they do.
Most of the shows mentioned above debuted their first three episodes yesterday and will roll out weekly henceforth. Dickinson was the only one to release in its entirety — ten half-hour-ish episodes, all helmed by rapidly-rising-star Hailee Steinfeld as the titular 19th Century poet Emily Dickinson. That distribution model alone makes the show stand slightly apart from the rest of the Apple TV+ lineup. There isn’t as much surety around its on-going success, and its less starry cast makes for worse headlines. But the show doesn’t care, and nor should you. This is the show that proves that despite their robotic public-facing image, Apple still knows what fun is.
Emily Dickinson herself fits the fun-loving rebellious teen-protagonist mold, which is harder to do in the 1850s when attitudes towards women aren’t entirely favorable. Emily doesn’t want to get married or do her chores or live a life of servile devotion to a husband, even if her mother (Jane Krakowski) would like her to and her father, Edward (Toby Huss), is appalled at the idea of his daughter being in the papers. But her closest allies include the local literary magazine editor George Gould (Samuel Farnsworth), even though he sees himself as a potential suitor, and her best friend turned secret lover Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt) — bringing shame to the family is basically Emily’s whole shtick.
But the secret weapon of Dickinson is that this isn’t even the half of it. It’s a period piece with deliberately anachronistic language and musical supervision. It’s a coming-of-age story about teenagers married to a biopic about a literary icon. It embraces all the angsty self-discovery and reckless emotion of young relationships but leaves Dickinson’s work unchanged; sometimes literalizing its content such as in a bizarre appearance by Wiz Khalifa-as-Death. It’s a much better way of modernizing classic literature than what The King tried to do this weekend over on Netflix. Whenever it leans into its idiosyncracies the show is at its best.
This is a goofy experiment that has a riot with recent revelations about Dickinson’s sexuality and relationships, but it’s also unashamedly itself in the searching, fumbling way that teenagers often feel for the outline of who they are or intend to be. You can’t help but respect the show’s willingness to simply be itself, even in a streaming landscape where the money-makers are the best interpretations of something else. It might not be the most prominent title in Apple TV+’s launch-day lineup, but it’s probably the most deserving of your attention.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.