Watching “Dickinson” is a strange experience, and not just because it’s a deliberately strange retelling of poet Emily Dickinson’s life complete with bass-heavy needle drops and hallucinations of Death as a man with a Cheshire Cat smirk (played by, this is true, Wiz Khalifa). For all the big creative swings the new Apple TV Plus series takes, it feels suspended between several different approaches without committing to a single one. It’s not a comedy, nor a drama, nor even quite a “dramedy.” It’s at least adjacent to a teen show in the vein of a high school series you might find on the CW, until it’s not. It’s not parody, nor entirely sincere. It’s possible to find a unique space amidst all the set categories within television, but at least in its first three episodes, “Dickinson” has trouble doing so outside its basic premise, which boils down to, “what if Emily Dickinson could literally call ‘bullshit’ on the patriarchy?” If at one point Emily (played by executive producer Hailee Steinfeld) emerged from her stately Amherst home in a Forever 21 shirt emblazoned with “#FEMINIST,” it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising.
From creator Alena Smith, “Dickinson” feels like the logical conclusion to well over a decade of content inspired — whether directly or through cultural osmosis — by movies like the jousting comedy “A Knight’s Tale” (2001) or Sofia Coppola’s decadent “Marie Antoinette” (2006). While novel at first in retrospect, those films’ gambits of humanizing a previously untouchable historical figure by re-contextualizing them through modern manners and music has proved incredibly influential. “You thought you knew these people,” works like these say through a hefty wink, “but did you realize that they were people like you and me?”
On both a literary and personal level, Emily Dickinson’s reputation has been that of a brilliant spinster whose work went unappreciated in her own lifetime. In the world of “Dickinson,” she’s a fiery teen genius whose longing for agency all her own gets dismissed as eccentric. Her father (Toby Huss) is a blustery multi-hyphenate with big political dreams; her prim mother (a jarringly miscast Jane Krakowski) wants nothing more than to make a lovely home, a manageable dream shared by Emily’s meeker younger sister, Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov). Her brother Austin (Adrian Blake Enscoe) is the town dreamboat, but he only has sights for Sue (Ella Hunt), a quietly smart orphan who also happens to be Emily’s best friend.
These relationships are all by and large accurate to Dickinson’s real life, though the pivotal one between Emily and her overbearing father, whom she lived with all her life, doesn’t make much of any sense the way it unfolds onscreen. “Dickinson” also makes the choice to make the queer subtext between Emily and Sue text — though in truth, Dickinson described the lifelong love between the two real women in stark enough terms throughout her poetry that the word “subtext” is only barely applicable. Many of the best moments of the season’s first third spring from Emily and Sue’s relationship, which pulses with mutual admiration and lust thanks to Hunt and Steinfeld’s nuanced portrayals.
In fact, their acting saves many moments that “Dickinson” otherwise drowns in distracting stylistic flourishes. Maybe the most frustrating part of the first few episodes is how close they get to connecting Emily’s spirit to that of her poetry before losing the thread. The best episode is — not coincidentally, for aforementioned chemistry reasons — the one that draws the strongest line between a poem about volcanoes to the strength of Emily’s feelings for Sue. The others, which tackle Death and the destabilizing feeling of being on an unsteady ship, fail to make the case for why Emily is preoccupied with those particular themes at those particular times. The lack of follow-through on Emily’s famous “I could not stop for Death” poem is particularly disappointing, both because the episode sidesteps the most obvious connection from Emily to death in her real life (i.e. Sue’s entire family dying one by one), and because Khalifa really is pretty fun as Emily’s imagination of what Death might be like if he actually had a carriage with which to whisk her away from her banal life.
Given the show’s scattered narrative and stylistic approach to Emily’s life and work, its biggest strength by a long shot is its star. Steinfeld’s Emily is a close cousin of her “Edge of Seventeen” character, who was also furious and intelligent beyond her years (and, coincidentally, also almost definitely in love with her best friend who goes on to date her older brother). “Furious and intelligent” is a space in which Steinfeld, somehow still an underrated actor despite her early Oscar nomination for “True Grit,” excels. Even when the show around her starts to crumble under its own ambitious weight, Steinfeld usually finds a way to carry it. Hopefully the show won’t make her work quite as hard to do it in the back half, or at least find a more interesting narrative road for her to righteously stomp down.
“Dickinson” premieres November 1 on Apple Plus.