How can we make a 19th century New England poet and recluse… sexy? That’s the question that Apple TV+ series Dickinson sets out to answer, balancing a show about an isolated writer obsessed with death alongside appealing to a millennial audience — with dance music, slang and even teeny-tiny sunglasses that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Riverdale episode.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld as a young Emily Dickinson, the series is filled with nods to millennial culture. Emily’s crinoline-clad acquaintances twerk during a party scene, while her sister’s repulsive love interest flips open his wallet to show five different locks of female hair — much like an American frat boy scrolling through his trophy collection of nudes.
The first episode is keen to establish just how weird Emily is. Look, she collects birds nests! She walks into walls! She hands out dead mice to suitors! Not to mention she’s dating Death himself, played by rapper Wiz Khalifa. In a dreamlike sequence, she jumps into a spectral carriage where he’s waiting (and he’s dressed, oddly, almost exactly the same as the dapper voodoo man from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog). While Billie Eilish’s ‘bury a friend’ plays, she cosies up to him, soothed by his promise that she’ll “be the only Dickinson they talk about in 200 years”.
Fittingly, one of the most memorable things about the series is its approach to language. “Bulls**t!” Emily mutters during her first onscreen appearance. “Let’s get this party commenced!” one boy bellows, a typical line that straddles both 19th and 21st century vernacular. But while Emily and her young contemporaries largely speak like modern teens, adults talk the way we’d expect them to. “You have already made my daughter’s acquaintance?,” asks Mrs Dickinson (Jane Krakowski) during an awkward conversation between herself, Emily and a young man. “Mom, he’s in the lit club with Austin,” Emily shrugs. “We hang out, like, all the time.”
The dialogue highlights the generational disconnect within the Dickinson household, but it may also be a clumsy attempt to point to how modern and unconventional Emily’s approach to poetry was.
The best scenes are those that focus on Emily’s gay relationship with Sue (Ella Hunt), her orphaned best friend and future sister-in-law. As the series progresses we see more of the pair, and the intense love triangle they form with Emily’s entitled brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe). Similarly to series like Riverdale or Euphoria, the show finds rich ground in the heady effects of first and forbidden love – but some of the more jarring attempts to invoke millennial culture will have the real Emily Dickinson rolling in her grave.
Dickinson premieres 1st November 2019 on the Apple TV app with an Apple TV+ subscription